Tuesday, August 29, 2006

'Talk to Iran' is an old and banal idea

Amir Taheri, Gulf News:
"Talk to Iran!" The phrase has become a mantra for all those who fear the Khomeinist regime but are equally scared of challenging it.

The idea of talks is attractive for a number of reasons.

To begin with, it is based on the assumption that every problem must have a solution; all we need to do is look for it. Most people find the idea that a problem might, somehow, defy solution in a given timeframe, unbearable.

The truth, however, is that life, including international life, is full of problems that do not have ready-made solutions at the time of our choosing.

By recommending talks, therefore, we cling to the hope that the process might somehow produce a miracle.

The "Talk to Iran" party pretends that it has struck gold with an original idea.

In fact this is a banal idea that has been in circulation for a quarter of a century.

President Jimmy Carter thought of it in January 1979, a month before the mullahs seized power in Tehran, when he established contact with the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, then operating from a Paris suburb.

Once the mullahs were in control, the Carter administration intensified talks with them through the embassy in Tehran. Bruce Laingen, the charge d'affaire and a sincere supporter of the Islamic Revolution, was a daily visitor to the foreign ministry. Six months after the formal establishment of the Islamic republic, Carter's national security adviser Zbigniew Bzrezinski held "a summit" with Mehdi Bazargan, Khomeini's prime minister to discuss "a strategic partnership". The process ended when Khomeinist "students", raided the US Embassy in Tehran. Since then, all US administrations, with the exception of the present one, have maintained some level of talks. However, none succeeded in influencing the Khomeinist strategy in any way. Others who talked to the Islamic republic fared no better.

Hans-Dietrich Genscher, long-time foreign minister of West Germany, built his career around the hope of bringing the Islamic Republic into the international mainstream. He invented the phrase "critical dialogue" which, in practice, ended up meaning a joint criticism of the US by Iran and the Europeans.

Genscher's French colleague Roland Dumas was equally enthusiastic about what he called "a constructive dialogue" with the mullahs. The Genscher-Duma scenario was also tried by Spain's socialist prime minister Felipe Gonzalez and, more recently, Jack Straw, who was pushed aside as British foreign secretary only recently.

Americans and Europeans have not been alone in achieving little or nothing,
if not actually meeting with disaster, by talking to the Islamic Republic.

Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan have been talking to Iran to determine the status of the Caspian Sea for 12 years without getting anywhere. Turkey has talked to Iran since 1989 to persuade it to stop the flow of money and arms to Turkish-Kurdish rebels and the Turkish branch of Hezbollah again to no avail. Egypt too did not make any headway on the issue of resuming diplomatic ties.

In every case the Islamic Republic has interpreted the readiness of an adversary to talk as a sign of weakness and, as a result, has hardened its position. READ MORE

One might wonder why. Is it because Iran's leaders are out of touch with reality or have not mastered the art of diplomacy? The answer is no.

Two facts might help explain Iran's behaviour.

The first is that the Khomeinist regime is the last of the revolutionary regimes with universal messianic pretensions.

The second fact that might explain the behaviour of the Khomeinists, is related to the rivalries among them from the start.

Thus, no Khomeinist leader can be seen making the slightest concessions to an outsider, let alone a coalition of "infidel" powers, without risking political death.

Khomeinist diplomacy is designed to seek total triumph for the Islamic Republic and total surrender for its negotiating partners on all issues.

Current tension

All this brings us to the current tension around Tehran's refusal to suspend uranium enrichment as a precondition for talks about a package of incentives from the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany.

It is obvious that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad cannot accept that precondition without risking political suicide. Those who drafted the UN offer must have known this. It is, therefore, surprising that they now claim to be surprised by Tehran's response.

Since 1979 the real question with regard to Iran has been simple: should the world kowtow to the Khomeinist regime or should the Khomeinist regime accept the global rules of the game? Maybe it is time to provide a clear answer.

Amir Taheri is a member of Benador Associates.