All Writings
May 15, 2006

Engage Iran Directly

For the past five years the Bush administration has followed a failed policy toward Iran, leading to the current dangerous impasse. It is time for the administration to reassess its strategy, think out of the box, and enter into direct talks with Tehran. The goal would not simply be to defuse the present conflict but to reach a more comprehensive regional security arrangement that includes Iraq as well as other Gulf states.

With the continuing turmoil in Iraq and the Palestinian territories, the administration must take every conceivable measure to deescalate the potentially explosive situation with Iran, which, if it escalates, can engulf other nations in the region. The administration’s belief that Tehran responds only to coercive measures has proven baseless and counterproductive. In fact, Tehran has won the game of brinkmanship with Washington. The more the administration has bullied them, the more intransigent the Iranians have become. Their national consciousness has been raised, and their “right” to attain nuclear power has become a symbol of national pride. But having successfully enriched uranium, Tehran may also feel that it has secured a face-saving way out of the impasse, which can, at least partly, explain President Ahmadinejad’s letter to President Bush. Although the letter is not worthy of a detailed response, it does represent a diplomatic overture. This impression was reinforced during Mr. Ahmadinejad’s trip to Indonesia, when he expressed his willingness to talk directly with American officials. Thus, although his letter did not address the nuclear issue, it was clearly meant as an opening, and only by directly engaging the Iranians, can Washington establish its own agenda for discussion. If it chooses not to, the administration, to the utter dismay of its friends and allies, will forfeit the chance afforded by a great opening to deescalate tensions in the Middle East.

There are many other reasons why the Bush administration should engage with the Iranians directly and thereby shape the agenda and greatly influence the outcome. Here are some:

First, in view of Washington’s stated policy of regime change in Iran, Tehran has every reason to suspect its intentions and to accuse the administration of duplicity. By refusing to participate in direct negotiations, Washington is demonstrating a complete lack of sincerity and so only reinforcing such suspicions. Iranian suspicions are also fueled by the absence of a coherent U.S. policy, which contradicts President Bush’s insistence that America seeks a diplomatic solution. Therefore, as long as the administration’s stated policy is a regime change, Iran wants security guarantees from the United States that it will not be attacked. Having witnessed close up what happened to Iraq, another member of Mr. Bush’s axis of evil, Tehran has no reason to feel sanguine about the administration’s designs. For this reason the Iranians feel that direct negotiation, during which an agreement is reached with Washington, is crucial to their national security.

Second, the administration must enter into direct negotiation with Iran, albeit in the context of ongoing negotiations between Iran and Germany, France, and Britain. This negotiating framework will help persuade two major powers—Russia and China–the United States is sincerely willing to exhaust all diplomatic options before considering more coercive measures. As long as the United States needs the support of China and Russia, it has to view direct negotiations with Iran as a strategic option, and then to make every effort for them to succeed so, in the event that talks collapse, Iran will bear the blame.

Third, direct negotiations with Tehran will allow the United States to learn first-hand not just about Iran’s professed national aspirations to develop and maintain a peaceful nuclear program but more of its ultimate intentions. The negotiations with North Korea have demonstrated that nothing works better than direct contact in generating more transparency and an atmosphere conducive to increased mutual confidence between governments.

Fourth, direct negotiations will also create their own dynamic, opening the door for far broader regional security agreements. Because of its strategic geographical location and size, as well as its oil and gas resources, Iran will always be an indispensable player in the region. The Bush administration must thus seek a breakthrough when there is a breakdown. Direct negotiations with Iran offer such a prospect. They also would have tremendous appeal for the Iranian people. This may seem surprising but the United States actually remains more popular in Iran than in any other Arab and Muslim state, which explains why most Iranians will welcome normalized relations between the two countries.

Fifth, the experience with North Korea have shown conclusively that only direct talks between Washington and a regime it is in conflict with, even when conducted in the context of multilateral talks, make a final agreement possible. The North Koreans insisted all along on direct negotiations, knowing full well that the United States is the prime player and that only it could provide them with the ultimate security and financial aid they sought. Tehran is of the same mind, believing absolutely that America holds the key to regional stability and prosperity.

Having watched its misguided policy toward Iran for the past five years, friends and foes of the United States wonder what this administration is planning to pull out of its hat next. If this administration wants to resolve the conflict with Iran over its nuclear ambitions, logic and practicality dictate that direct negations hold the only real promise for resolution before things escalate beyond even the U.S. capacity to contain them