ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Over the past few days, we've witnessed three different developments in U.S. dealings with Iran that all suggest a warming trend in relations. The day for implementation of the nuclear deal came and went with the reports of Iranian compliance. Five Americans were released by Iran, and the U.S. sailors taken last week in the Persian Gulf were released. At the same time, Washington insisted on continued sanctions for Iran's support of terrorism and for its ballistic missile tests. Well, what does all this point to in U.S.-Iranian relations? With that question, we turn to Suzanne Maloney. She's an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution, formerly with the State Department. Welcome to the program
SUZANNE MALONEY: Thanks so much.
SIEGEL: You think that Washington and Tehran have found just about everything they can constructively agree on or do you see this relationship leading to any other areas of cooperation?
MALONEY: Well, I think what we've been able to achieve is the establishment of a really constructive communications channel, obviously at the highest levels with Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and Secretary of State John Kerry. But, in fact, there are working relationships that extend through the bureaucracy far beyond that. I think that communications channel is a huge improvement over 37 years of no official direct dialogue. I don't think that there are easy opportunities that lie ahead in terms of other big differences. But obviously Secretary Kerry is very eager and very hopeful that he can make some kind of progress on the question of Syria by involving Iran.
SIEGEL: Are U.S. and Iranian interests sufficiently similar in Syria to make any kind of progress toward a settlement, something that they both might work on?
MALONEY: I think there are some parallel interests. I don't think that I would call them similar at this stage. Obviously, the Iranians are deeply attached to sustaining Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. This is something they've invested both treasure and lives in at this stage. But I think that they appreciate that there is no military solution. And there are at least some indications that they are prepared to countenance some sort of outcome in which he loses power eventually. That's a long distance from where the United States is. However, stability is in the interests of both countries, and that's a starting point.
SIEGEL: Is there a possibility of diplomatic normalization being on the table anytime soon?
MALONEY: I don't think so. For the Islamic Republic, the animosity with the United States is sort of a founding tenet of the regime. And if it were one that were formally abandoned through the establishment of diplomatic relations with the reopening of an embassy, I think it would call into question for many, both adherents and dissidents, within that system the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic itself.
SIEGEL: You mentioned the extensive contacts, the channels of communication, now between the U.S. and Iran. Does that mean that down the road after the presidency of Barack Obama, after the presidency of Rouhani, that there's enough there to keep going or does it really depend on two leaders who are especially committed to that?
MALONEY: Well, I think we're going to see a change in 2017 in terms of U.S. policy toward Tehran. We heard it from all of the Republican candidates throughout the course of this campaign. And we hear from Secretary Clinton and the way that she's articulated how she would approach Iran. It would certainly be a much tougher-minded view toward dealing with Iran and looking for opportunities to demonstrate to the Iranians that in fact Washington is not a pushover. I think President Obama has been a little bit more forward-leaning in terms of trying to engage the Iranians, and that will probably change, irrespective of who's elected here.
SIEGEL: Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution, thanks for talking with us.
MALONEY: Thank you.
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