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The United States continues its overtures to Iran. Last week, Washington lifted a ban on the import of some Iranian luxury goods and admitted to having interfered in Iran’s internal affairs in the past. The mea culpa was a bold step, but its effects will be blunted by the political dynamic in each country. Rapprochement is needed, but it will take time.

The U.S. gesture was rich in symbolism, but not much else. Exports of caviar, carpets, nuts and dried fruit pale beside the $10 billion in Iranian assets frozen by the U.S. government. Nor do they affect sanctions that extend to the oil and natural gas that provide Iran with 85 percent of its foreign exchange. And U.S. companies are still banned from making significant investments in those industries. Tehran has made it clear that the moves are welcome, but any “new relationship” will founder on the sanctions.

The Iranian reformers’ victory in the last elections has encouraged the U.S. to move forward. Unfortunately, the conservatives still have considerable influence. A divided power structure makes it difficult for Tehran to stick to a policy line. And if one issue unites most Iranians, it is the belief that the U.S. has much to account for in its past behavior toward their country.

Washington has problems of its own. Tehran’s support for terrorist groups is problematic, as are upcoming trials of 13 Iranian Jews charged with espionage. And the U.S. is no less aggrieved for the 1979 seizure of its embassy. Nudging the relationship forward is about all that can be asked for, especially in an election year.

In admitting to “short-sighted behavior” toward Iran, the U.S. has acknowledged the obvious: Iran is too important a country to leave on the sidelines of Middle Eastern politics. It is unclear whether Washington is willing to go even further and build a relationship on another, equally fundamental truth: Iran’s interests and those of the U.S. diverge. When the U.S. recognizes that, the new relationship can be built.

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