Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Give Ahmadinejad the Cold Shoulder

David Frum, National Post:
Last week, the President of Iran published an 18-page letter to the President of the United States. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's epistle tells us a lot we don't especially need to know: It tells us that he believes that the Jews faked the Holocaust, and the U.S. faked 9/11; that Jesus would have supported today's Islamic extremists and that the Iranian nuclear program represents a triumph of free intellectual inquiry (never mind that the hard bits were all imported from China, via Pakistan).

What it does not tell us, however, is whether there are any terms on which the current crisis with Iran could be settled peacefully. The letter does not even address that question--or the related issues of Iran's history of global terrorism, its sheltering of senior al-Qaeda figures, and its support for the insurgents in Iraq.

Now, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, former U.S. national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, and a great many academic writers on international relations have urged the United States to negotiate directly with the Islamic Republic. They argue that direct talks would allow the United States to get the answers that Ahmadinejad's letter does not provide. You can expect journalists to take up the cry next--bending Western public opinion and, possibly, Western governments.

What's wrong with the idea? Why not direct negotiations? READ MORE

Here's a short answer--actually six sub-answers that add up to one big answer:

1. The United States will learn nothing from direct negotiations with Iran that it does not already know. Three European governments--Britain, France, and Germany--have been negotiating directly with Iran since October 2003. The U.S. has repeatedly and publicly authorized these so-called "EU-3" governments to speak on America's behalf. The governments have reported back every Iranian demand. If the world is heading for a crisis over the Iranian nuclear program, it is not for lack of information about Iranian demands.

2. The Iranians do not negotiate in good faith. I had a chance a little while ago to talk to one of the senior EU-3 negotiators. He described how at the end of one intense bargaining session, he asked his Iranian counterpart to sign the minutes of their talk, so there would be no mistake when they resumed the next morning. The Iranian signed--and then next morning claimed that the minutes were erroneous and that the signature was a forgery.

3. For the Iranians, the main purpose of negotiations is delay. They hope to run out the clock on the Bush Presidency, in the belief that any Bush successor will revert to the Clinton-era policy of accommodating the mullahs. If the U.S. takes over the talks from the EU-3, it risks finding that it must start again from zero--and that Iran has gained three risk-free years for nuclear research.

4. The Iranians will score a propaganda victory. If the U.S. replaces the EU-3 across the negotiating table from Iran, what had been an Iran vs. the world confrontation will be transformed into an Iran vs. the United States confrontation--allowing Iran to present itself to the Muslim world (and indeed to radical anti-Americans everywhere) as a victim of American bullying.

5. For the West, by contrast, leaving negotiations to the EU enhances allied solidarity. Nobody in France, Germany, or the United Kingdom can accuse the U.S. of wrecking promising negotiations through neo-con belligerence--because France, Germany and the United Kingdom are doing the negotiating themselves. And having allowed those three countries to take the lead in seeking a peaceful solution, the U.S. is much more strongly positioned to expect their support should a peaceful solution prove impossible.

6. Above all, let us bear in mind that the reason we are hearing calls for the U.S. to talk to Iran is precisely that the talks between the EU-3 and Iran have failed. Iran has resumed its progress toward a nuclear bomb (assuming, that is, that it ever paused). The spotlight now needs to be placed clearly on Iran and the threat it presents to regional and world peace. Allowing the U.S. to be dragged into the spotlight too as a negotiating partner will change the subject--from Iranian aggression to America's alleged intransigence or dilatoriness or whatever it is that America's international critics will think up next to shift the blame away from the true villains of the story.

We have to acknowledge this much now: The present Iranian government wants a nuclear bomb. It will not be coaxed into changing its mind. The question before the world now is: Can Iran be coerced by any means short of force? There's only one way to find out--and it is not by talking.

David Frum is a resident fellow at AEI.