• Iran
  • November 29, 2006
  • 6 minutes read

Why We Need to Talk to Iran

Iran last week decided to play power broker. It invited Iraq’s President to visit Tehran to discuss regional stability, and it sought to bring Syria into the process as well. This was not greeted with glee in Washington. But it should have been. One of America’s top strategic interests is to get Iran to behave less like a revolutionary cauldron and more like a traditional nation-state. For the mullahs and their mad President to express a desire for a stable neighborhood is a good first step.

Step two should involve the U.S. talking, directly and seriously, to Iran. Our current conceit, which is that Iran should be denied the honor of our direct discourse until it suspends its nuclear-enrichment programs, hurts us more than it hurts Iran. For 27 years we have relied on unilateral sanctions and diplomatic chilliness to persuade Iran to moderate its behavior and forsake its nuclear ambitions. That hasn’t exactly worked.

Direct talks with Iran will not persuade it to abandon its nuclear dreams right away. Even the slightly saner predecessors of President Ahmadinejad surreptitiously proceeded down the nuclear path despite pledges to do otherwise. Given Persia’s precarious location and imperial impulses, I dare say that even our late unlamented friend the Shah was and would be doing the same.

When a problem is for the moment unsolvable, then enlarge it. (O.K., this is a Donald Rumsfeld maxim, but that doesn’t make it inoperative.) One precedent is the opening to China negotiated by Henry Kissinger, which did not try to settle such intractable issues as the status of Taiwan but instead created a framework for a realistic long-term relationship involving both cooperation and contention.

Talks with Tehran should begin, without preconditions, by discussing such a framework while getting Iran involved in keeping the chaos in Iraq from ripping apart the region, just as Iran helped stabilize Afghanistan after the defeat of our mutual enemy the Taliban. We should then permit commercial deals with Iran’s small private sector, which could build a middle-class constituency for stability and greater integration into the world economy. Who knows? Perhaps this could even lead to accession talks with the World Trade Organization. In the process, Iranians will see more clearly the benefits of being treated as a responsible global player. Only then might we have enough leverage to convince the nation’s leaders that there’s a downside to flouting the world on the nuclear issue.

President Ahmadinejad has the advantage of looking like a poet, sounding like a lunatic and not caring whether the West likes him. But Iran has multiple power centers. There’s an election next month, for example, in which a reformist former President is challenging a fundamentalist cleric to join the Assembly of Experts that oversees Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei. About 70% of the population is under 30, and there are at least 70,000 active blogs expressing all sorts of aspirations of a diverse people, including ones by the President (ahmadinejad.ir) and Supreme Leader (khamenei.ir).

That is why, in addition to government talks, it’s useful to have informal contacts with the Iranian people. I was with President Bush in New Orleans a month ago, and he got to talking about the ravings of Ahmadinejad, but he knows not to personify relations the way he once did with Russia’s Vladimir Putin. That is why he has called for, and Congress has funded, citizen exchanges with Iran. A delegation of health experts from Iran, whose AIDS program is one of the best in the region, will soon visit the U.S. under the auspices of the State Department’s international visitors program and the Aspen Institute, where I work.

Engagement with Iran should be done in partnership with our allies in the region, namely Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. They can help keep the Iranians (and Syrians) in check and look after Sunni interests. That requires one other ingredient: reigniting efforts to reach an Israeli-Palestinian peace, if and when the Palestinians form a new government willing to deal with Israel. The Israelis understand this; Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has informally talked to the Saudis about relaunching their Arab peace plan.

Who best to choreograph all this? Jim Baker. The Iraq Study Group, which he chairs with Lee Hamilton, plans to recommend a process along these lines, and his associates say that Baker would be willing to help implement it as a special envoy if the President offers him enough authority. That might be resisted by Elliott Abrams, the National Security Council staffer who coordinates Middle East policy, and Baker would not accept the job unless this is resolved. But Condoleezza Rice, who has pushed for a comprehensive diplomatic approach to the region, might be supportive, even enthusiastic. She knows that the Administration needs to salvage a foreign policy legacy beyond the botched war in Iraq.