Talking to Iran

Perhaps the biggest point of contention thus far in the general election has been Barack Obama’s proposal to talk to Iran. McCain has consistently gone after Obama for his advocacy of diplomacy, claiming that Iran has no interest in negotiation or compromise:

European negotiators have proposed a peaceful endgame for Tehran, should it abandon its nuclear ambitions and comply with UN Security Council resolutions.  The plan offers far-reaching economic incentives, external support for a civilian nuclear energy program, and integration into the international community.  But Tehran has said no.

The Iranians have spent years working toward a nuclear program.  And the idea that they now seek nuclear weapons because we refuse to engage in presidential-level talks is a serious misreading of history.  In reality, a series of administrations have tried to talk to Iran, and none tried harder than the Clinton administration.  In 1998, the secretary of state made a public overture to the Iranians, laid out a roadmap to normal relations, and for two years tried to engage.  The Clinton administration even lifted some sanctions, and Secretary Albright apologized for American actions going back to the 1950s.  But even under President Khatami – a man by all accounts less radical than the current president – Iran rejected these overtures.

He even goes further, saying “it’s hard to see what such a summit with President Ahmadinejad would actually gain, except an earful of anti-Semitic rants, and a worldwide audience for a man who denies one Holocaust and talks before frenzied crowds about starting another.”

McCain’s rhetoric on Iran has been little more than fear mongering. He is wrong, both on the history of US-Iranian relations and on the policy going forward:

McCain argues that the Clinton Administration already tried engaging in 1998 and that the entreaties were rebuffed. He’s right.  Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei vetoed any talks at that time.  But McCain is selectively cherry picking history.  The story of the last 15 years between Iran and the U.S. is one of missed opportunities on both sides.  The best example is from 2003, where right after the start of the Iraq War senior officials in the Iranian Foreign Ministry sent the “Grand Bargain fax” to the Bush Administration outlining what a deal between the U.S. and Iran might look like.  The Bush Administration decided not to respond because of its position of strength at the time and the belief that Iranian reformists couldn’t deliver on their promises. In the late 1980s and early 1990s Iran worked to have Hezbollah release all of the American hostages in Lebanon and in exchange expected greater engagement from the United States.  But while the first Bush Administration had signaled that it would in fact engage after the 1992 U.S. Presidential elections, when they lost, the Clinton Administration decided instead opt for a dual containment policy.  Elements in the Iranian government who had supported engagement with the U.S. ended up feeling spurned.  The story is much more complicated than: “the U.S. has tried talking and Iran has refused.”

McCain also portrays Ahmadinejad as the man to negotiate with in Iran. First of all, Obama is not proposing sitting down for direct talks with Ahmadinejad but with the Iranian government.  Second, as Joe Klein has pointed out – and McCain has refused to acknowledge – Khameini – not Ahmadinejad – runs Iran’s foreign policy.

The Democracy Arsenal piece even understates the prospects dialogue between the US and Iran, as it doesn’t mention the close cooperation between the US and Iran in the aftermath of 9/11.

2001: Post-9/11 Cooperation on Afghanistan

Like nearly all world leaders, Ayatollah Khamenei condemned the attacks of 9/11. After the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan toppled the Taliban government, American and Iranian diplomats met together in Bonn, with a handful of representatives from other UN members, to form a new government and constitution for Kabul. “None was more [helpful] than the Iranians,” said James Dobbins, the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan at the time, writing in the Washington Post. “The original version of the Bonn agreement … neglected to mention either democracy or the war on terrorism. It was the Iranian representative who spotted these omissions and successfully urged that the newly emerging Afghan government be required to commit to both.”

Iran also cooperated with the United Nations to repatriate nearly one million Afghan refugees residing on its soil and—working with United States, Russia, and India—provided support to the Northern Alliance. Flynt Leverett of the Brookings Institution tells CFR.org’s Bernard Gwertzman, “I think at least some Iranian officials were hoping could get leveraged into a broader strategic dialogue, but that channel was effectively foreclosed when President Bush in his 2002 State of the Union address labeled Iran as part of the ‘Axis of Evil.’”

We really don’t know what Iran’s response to a new president would be. Ahmadinejad is a crazy person, but he doesn’t run Iran’s foreign policy. The Supreme Leader does. Khamenei has veered back and forth between being open to engagement and striking a belligerent pose. If he continues to follow the belligerent path McCain is probably right that talks would be of little value. But if he reacts like he did in 2001 and 2003 there is a real opening for negotiation. There is no good reason not to give it a shot and see if there really is an opening.

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