U.S. and Iran: Negotiating?
That's probably the question being asked now by leading intelligence agencies and news organizations as they search for some signs through the current heavy "diplomatic fog." In a long article Target: Tehran?By placing Iran on the Axis of Evil, Bush made an enemy of a would-be allypublished in Novemeber 2004 I proposed that Bush follow the footsteps of another hawkish Republican President who once upon a time surprised the world by going to Red China and that he launch a diplomatic opening to Iran. Indeed, the following sounds as though it has been written today:
At a time when the ideologues in the Bush administration and Congress, encouraged by the powerful Israeli lobby, are calling for another regime change—this time in Tehran as part of a crusade to bring democracy to the region—while the anti-American mullahs are strengthening their hold on power, a U.S.-Iran détente sounds more like science fiction than serious analysis.Here I applied the Nixon-Goes-to-China historical analogy to the current Iran-U.S. relationship:
But the opening of China was conceived and executed in the midst of the Cultural Revolution and when the power of the pro-Taipei lobby was at its height. While demonstrators roaming the streets of Tehran yelling “death to America” enjoy the backing of a powerful element of the regime, one recalls the same type of activists were also a dominating force in China when Kissinger was trying to make a deal.Elements in the Iranian leadership have been providing assistance to anti-American and anti-Israeli organizations in the Middle East, including insurgents fighting the “Great Satan” (America) in Iraq and terrorists combating the “Little Satan” (Israel) in Lebanon. But the Chinese were also assisting revolutionary guerrilla groups around the world in the 1970s—in Cuba, Vietnam, and Africa—and accusing the Soviets of lacking the same kind of resolve to confront America.
That a hawkish Cold Warrior president was creating the conditions for what amounted to a strategic alliance with a regime committed to a radical anti-American ideology had to do with calculations of balance of power and national interests. Americans were hoping to exploit the tensions between the elderly leaders of the Soviet Union and China in order to put pressure on Moscow to make concessions on nuclear arms control. Nixon expected that opening China would help improve America’s geostrategic position in the aftermath of Vietnam and create an environment that would permit a gradual extraction of U.S. troops from the Southeast Asia quagmire. The Chinese regarded the new relationship as part of a strategy to contain what they perceived as a growing threat from the Soviet Union.
Similar geostrategic calculations should have helped to drive Americans and Iranians into re-evaluating their current relationship—or lack of one—in the aftermath of 9/11 and certainly following the invasion of Iraq. Indeed, both reformers and conservative elements in Tehran were proposing a restoration of relations between the countries. And there were some signs that Washington was flirting with the notion, with realists advocating a more pragmatic approach, ranging from step-by-step “selective engagement” on a few major policy issues to a “grand bargain” that would lead to the re-establishment of normal diplomatic and economic ties.
As I detailed in my piece (please read), the neocon forces did everything in their power to sabotage any move towards Iran-U.S. diplomatic detente, which only helped to strengthen the hands of the hardliners in Tehran and to elect Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as President.
So here we are in the midst of what seems to be a remake of the (another historical Cold-War analogy) Cuban Missile Crisiswhich as we know now involved a lot of behind-the-scenes secret negotiations. The Man from the Realpolitik planet who would be asked to analyze the current Iran-U.S. tensions would probably conclude that based on the "constellation forces" it's in both sides' interests to open a dialogue. Bush could certainly emerge as a Big Winner out of successful negotiations with Iran: He will be able to use Iranian influence among the Shiites in the region to stabilize Iraq (and Afghanistan)while Tehran's cooperation could help enhance U.S. pressure on Syria and the Palestine's Hamas government. Oil prices will fall down and Bush could emerge as a Man of Peace. That would be great for his "legacy" not to mention his party. At the same time, the Iranians also win. They would be recognized by the United States and its allies as a regional power not to mention the American money and business that could start flowing into the country. Big Loser: The Neocons and the Israel Lobby, although Israel,as I suggested in my article, will be able to adjust to to the new reality even if Iran goes nuclear:
When the Iranians go nuclear, Israel will have no choice but to set aside its own ambiguity and declare that it is a nuclear power. That will create a nuclear balance of power in the Middle East between the Jewish and Islamic republics not unlike the one that exists today between the another Muslim theocracy and its Hindu rival on the Indian subcontinent.Moreover, Israeli National Security Advisor Giora Eiland said this week that if Iran eventually does acquire nuclear weapons, it would be unlikely to share them with the Islamic militants it backs in the Middle East.read here
So...what's going on? Steve Clemons at the Washington Note and Jim Henley at Unqualified Offerings have been doing great job at "deconstructing" the diplomatic mumbo-jumbo and at reading between the lines of media reports about the Iranian President's recent letter to Bush and other developments. Of particular interest was Steve's post Someone is Making a Kissinger Move: Iran is Trying to Talk to America (which was based in part on reports in the FT and AFP) about a top Iranian official visiting Washington recently. Then there is the letter by Hassan Rohani, the"representative of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini" which was published inTime. No big scoops. But interesting. And check-out what Tony Karon has to say about the letters by Rohani and Ahmedinajad and related issues:
The most notable thing about Ahmedinajad’s letter was not that it was the first communication between Iranian leaders and the U.S. since 1979, but that it was the first public communication between Tehran and Washington since the hostage crisis. It was less significant for its content — a longwinded scolding of the Bush administration that could be bluntly translated as “here’s why we think you suck” — than the fact that Ahmedinajad sent it, and in grandstanding fashion. All previous attempts by Iran to engage the U.S. have been delivered discreetly via back channels, and Iran has long maintained a preference for secret talks to manage the relationship. Ahmedinajad would have no role in such negotiations, which would have to involve emissaries answerable to and speaking for the executive branch in Tehran, which is not Ahmedinajad but Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Given his previous inclination to scupper such rapproachment between the regime in Tehran and the West — but also the populist instinct he has displayed by his efforts to buck the clerics by allowing women into soccer matches — I’d say that Ahmedinajad is acting to preempt a far more serious negotiating initiative from Tehran.
Time carries an op ed written by Hassan Rohani, the Supreme Leader’s representative on the National Security Council that does just that, offering a negotiated solution on the issues of concern over Iran’s program. There’s not all that much new, although Iran is moving towards acceptance of a suspension of enrichment activities in some way. (Tehran’s bottom line, at least going into negotiations, appears to be that while it will come to some arrangement to have nuclear fuel supplied from outside, it insists on maintaining a research facility — a position the U.S. and Britain have rejected on the grounds that it allows Iran to refine its enrichment know-how, and also that it creates a pretext for importing technologies that could be diverted for a bomb program. But Iran hopes to overcome those objections by submitting all of its actitivies to an even stricter inspection regime than is currently in place.)
The Iranians appear to be moving in to a diplomatic space left vacant by the fact that the Bush administration has no coherent or credible policy on resolving the crisis without going to war. Bush insists he favors “diplomacy,” but he does not use the word in the conventional sense: Despite growing calls from European allies and even senior leaders of his own party in Washington, Bush steadfastly refuses to actually talk to Iran at all. Instead, by “diplomacy,” he means talking to allies in the hope of persuading them to back economic, and eventually military action against Iran unless it buckles to U.S. demands on the nuclear issue. The reason for this bizarre position is that the administration actually favors a policy of “regime-change” in Iran, and believes that talking to Tehran would therefore legitimize the regime. Even more seriously, of course, the premise of a diplomatic solution would require that Washington give Tehran security guarantees, undertaking on a treaty basis or something close to that to refrain from attacking the regime. And Bush, clinging to the adolescent revolutionary fantasy that he can transform those parts of the world that he doesn’t like by “moral clarity” and sheer force of will, is not prepared to go there. (Will somebody please remind these Reagan-wannabes that for all his “moral clarity,” President Reagan went further than any of his predecessors in actually engaging with Moscow, reducing tension and cutting missile fleets — to the alarm of the neocons at the time — in a way that helped ensure a climate in which the Soviet Union’s own leaders could acknowlede the longstanding decrepitude of their system and begin to dismantle it.)
And this is very, very interesting:
The point, though, is that the Bush administration is offering nothing by way of diplomatic initiatives; only a march in the direction of war. Diplomacy is about seeking common ground, finding solutions short of warfare on the grounds that war will be more costly to both sides. But it is also a theater of struggle, in which each side seeks to win allies and to peel away or neutralize the allies of its adversary. And here, it’s plain to see that the passive-aggressive position of the U.S. is going to be the loser if Iran now steps forward with a diplomatic initiative that offers hope to the Europeans and others that the matter can be settled without a confrontation.
An Iranian negotiating initiative now — probably using Germany as the interlocutor — will probably not win over the Bush administration, because the Iranians seek to continue uranium-enrichment, at least in a research setting. But it’s far from clear that the U.S. and Britain can win the day on that issue. (Germany indicated a willingness to deal on that basis when Russia first floated it.) More importantly, however, if the U.S. maintains its static position on negotiations, the Iranian initiative could leave it increasingly isolated.
Germany as mediator? In the Washington Post there was also a report today that Indonesia Offers to Mediate Talks With Iran. And I thought that it was quite remarkable that Rice and the Bushies while dismissing the Iranian President's letter didn't use it as an opportunity for name calling and for making more promises for "regime change" in Tehran. The Bottom Line: The chances for the UN Security Council adopting a resolution to "punish" Iran are close to zero. The costs of a U.S. military attack on Iran are going to be enormous. So the choices facing Washington now are either to maintain the dangerous status quo or to open a dialogue with Iran. Period. Talks with Iran could happen. If they do, we won't be hearing about them until they conclude. Memo to intelligence agencies and news organization: Find out if a leading U.S. diplomat had "disappeared" (R.Z.?)and be suspicious if Condi Rice extends a visit to Turkey or one of the "stans." Just some ideas...