Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Should the U.S. Negotiate Directly with Iran?

Karim Sadjadpour, Patrick Clawson, Council on Foreign Relations:
Pressure on the United States to deal directly with Iran has intensified after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent President Bush a letter. Two experts debate whether this is a smart option to resolve the nuclear impasse. READ MORE

Karim SadjadpourKarim Sadjadpour, Iran analyst, International Crisis Group

May 15, 2006

Dear Patrick,

These days, when I think about U.S. policy toward Iran, Winston Churchill's old adage about democracy comes to mind: Dialogue with Iran is the worst option available, save for all others. After twenty-seven years of mutual mistrust and ill will, dialogue with Iran will undoubtedly be difficult. But what are the alternatives?

In my interviews with senior European officials over the past three years—including members of the EU-3 nuclear negotiating team—it is readily apparent that none of them believe a binding resolution to the Iranian nuclear predicament can be reached absent a greater U.S. role, be it greater U.S. incentives or, preferably, direct dialogue with Tehran. IAEA chief Mohammed ElBaradei has consistently said the same thing, as has UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

Aside from the nuclear issue, we should disabuse ourselves of the notion that dialogue is tantamount to appeasement, or would be "selling out" the Iranian people's hopes of democratic change. Quite the contrary, embarking on a comprehensive dialogue with Iran will give the Bush administration the opportunity to match its rhetorical commitment to Middle Eastern democracy and human rights with action.

For Iranians, the causes of democracy and human rights resonate far louder than obscure demands to enrich uranium. Yet these issues have been conspicuously absent from past EU-3-Iran nuclear negotiations, and recent history has shown that the United States has little leverage to further these causes indirectly, and from afar. A direct American negotiating presence can ensure such concerns have a place at the table.

Right now, communication between Tehran and Washington is filtered through journalists, analysts, and foreign diplomats. But amid real concerns of a U.S.-Iran military encounter, and at a time when tens of thousands of U.S. troops are already in harm's way in Iraq, shouldn't issues of war and peace be discussed between the two parties which have most at stake?

As Bruce Laingen, a retired U.S. Foreign Service Officer who was held hostage by Iran for 444 days, told our esteemed mutual friend and colleague, the journalist Afshin Molavi: "Diplomats should talk, even with our foes. That's what we do. It doesn't make sense for us not to talk to the Iranians. I'm not saying that I would confidently predict a breakthrough, but there must be some sort of dialogue."

Best wishes,


Patrick Clawson Patrick Clawson, deputy director for research, Washington Institute for Near East Policy

May 16, 2005

Dear Karim,

The long history of U.S. dialogue with Iran is unbroken by any successes. The first high-level official contact was the November 1979 meeting between then National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and Iranian Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan—a meeting which created suspicions in Tehran the two sides were plotting against the revolution, leading three days later to the takeover of the U.S. embassy and the seizure of American diplomats as hostages. Then there was the Iran-contra affair, which was also not a success for the United States. The record suggests that attempts to work out ambitious breakthroughs with Iran have led to spectacular breakdowns.

Some of the efforts were simply useless, rather than so openly counterproductive. After President Khatami called for a dialogue of civilizations, President Clinton was so eager to speak to the Iranians he once paced back and forth for forty-five minutes in the UN basement hoping that Khatami would pass by for a "chance" encounter carefully arranged in advance—but no such luck. For President Bush, a defining moment in how useful are talks with Iran was the Bonn conference about Afghanistan at which the Iranian Foreign Ministry was most helpful, while that very same week the Iranian Revolutionary Guards were shipping tons of weapons to Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat.

This only begins to scratch the surface. I have not yet mentioned the copious exchanges of letters. In 1979, right after the revolution, President Carter sent a warm congratulatory letter to Ayatollah Khomeini. After the media once again breathlessly discovered one exchange between the two governments during the Clinton years, the Iranian Foreign Ministry's response was: So what else is new? We write each other all the time, which is true. Some of the letters have been about very delicate issues, such as when President Clinton wrote President Khatami to ask his assistance in arranging interviews with two suspects in the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing of a U.S. Air Force barracks in Saudi Arabia (he got nowhere). In short, the two governments have had no shortage of ways to communicate—the problem has been the communications have systematically led to failures.

Despite this sad record, diplomats should always be ready to go once more into the breach— unless that would be to fall into a trap. And a trap is just what Tehran has in mind. Iran has spent three years arguing loudly that all the international complaints about its violations of its NPT obligations are actually a ruse, that the real issue is the political dispute between the United States and Iran—which can only be settled by the two sides sitting down. In other words, Iran's goal has been to convert the nuclear issue from a dispute between the world and Iran into a U.S.-Iran dispute about Iran's foreign policy orientation. Indeed, when Iran approached the United States about direct bilateral talks in spring 2003, this coincided with Iran's nuclear issue coming before the IAEA Board of Governors—and Tehran proceeded to run around the world telling governments that the bilateral U.S.-Iran talks would obviate any need for the IAEA to consider the Iranian nuclear portfolio. Not surprisingly, Iran's attempt to frame the talks tipped the scales in Washington against such bilateral talks.

Another weighty argument against bilateral U.S.-Iran talks is that the U.S.' closest allies—namely, the Europeans—have taken up the burden of negotiations. Since Washington was more than a bit busy with its commitment in Iraq, the European effort was well appreciated. Europe has been leading not just on the nuclear issue. In fact, Europe and Iran spent years in a critical dialogue, including years of negotiations about a Trade Cooperation Agreement. Those negotiations broke down precisely over the European insistence that progress had to be made on human rights. Indeed, the European record of raising issues of democratic reform with Iran is darn good. And when then British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw spoke in March about the importance of supporting the cause of reform in Iran, his words resonated with Iranians much more strongly than did any similar statement by George Bush, about whom many are suspicious. When the Dutch government commits funding for expanded broadcasting to Iran, no one suspects that The Hague is secretly plotting "regime change"—yet rumors fly when Washington proposes to do the same. When the EU commits 6 million euros in support of civil society groups in Iran, analysts and the media do not rush to condemn the funding as the kiss of death for these groups—while any action by Washington to help such groups brings out the negative publicity. In short, Europe has been a vital voice for reform in Iran, while the United States has been handicapped.

European leadership on the Iran issue is highly appropriate at a time when so many around the world and around the United States question the judgment of the Bush administration. The sad reality is that Americans trust the judgment of Jacques Chirac about the Iran nuclear issue more than they trust that of G.W. Bush. Given this reality, the United States should not engage in bilateral talks with Iran, which would only feed suspicions in Europe that Washington and Tehran were cooking up a deal that would cut the Europeans out. When Europe feels that an American contribution is needed to make a deal work, they are well positioned to explain to the U.S. government what is necessary and why—and the record of the negotiations over the last two years has shown that when called upon to contribute, the Bush administration has done so. This is the right way to go: Europe in the lead, the United States in a supporting role. That is not a natural posture for the State Department, Washington-centric analysts, or scared Europeans to accept, but it is the best position for moving forward with Iran.