Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Direct talks with mullahs will backfire

Ilan Berman, The New York Daily News:
By now, there can be little doubt that America's attempt to curb Iran's runaway nuclear ambitions is in serious trouble.

Despite ongoing negotiations at the United Nations Security Council, Iran is busy publicly defying international demands. Tehran has announced its ability to enrich uranium, and broadcast its plans to build a 3,000-centrifuge cascade - capable of providing the Islamic Republic with enough weapons-grade uranium for two or more nuclear bombs annually - by the spring of 2007.

Given these difficulties, it's not surprising that an old idea has once again begun to resurface. Publicly and privately, many in the West are pushing for face-to-face nuclear talks between Tehran and Washington. Even Iran's hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, got in on the act last week with a long-winded letter to President Bush, an effort "to discuss" what he considered "some of the contradictions and questions" at play.

The goal of all of these proposals? To avoid conflict through "direct engagement," and, ultimately, strike some kind of agreement between Iran and the United States.

It's clear what the Iranian government would gain from such talks. Though internationally, Iran's ayatollahs may appear to be operating from a position of strength, their position is far weaker internally. According to most estimates, just 15% to 20% of Iran's 70 million-person population supports the current government. Serious and sustained international pressure has the ability to make this constituency increasingly uneasy.

An accord between the regime and the United States would change all that. To Iran's captive population, a settlement would suggest that the United States - despite all of its rhetoric - is no longer serious about supporting their urge for change. And to the Iranian leadership, it would signal that Washington doesn't really mean all its tough talk demanding Iran end its support for international terrorism and its pervasive meddling in Iraq. READ MORE

Should Washington work toward a diplomatic solution to the current nuclear crisis? Absolutely. But sometimes, apparent victories on paper are dangerous in reality. A diplomatic deal that ends up strengthening the Islamic Republic would virtually guarantee that Iran's rogue regime will live to fight another day, by then armed with nuclear weapons.

Berman is author of "Tehran Rising: Iran's Challenge to the United States."