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Opportunity Knocked

  • and Hillary Mann Leverett
...While Tehran pursues a range of policies that work against U.S. interests, it also has a history of working with Washington, most recently on Afghanistan and Iraq. And, from an American perspective, these interactions have been highly productive...
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There is an opportunity to hammer out a grand compromise with Iran—one that would even address its nuclear program. But the Bush administration seems determined to prevent talks that could advance vital U.S. interests.

Much of the media coverage of last Saturday’s nuclear talks between representatives of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany (the so-called P-5+1, including the United States), and the secretary general of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Saeed Jalili, reflected a disturbing historical amnesia about previous U.S.-Iranian negotiations. Indeed, listening to most media outlets, one gets the impression that the Islamic Republic is nothing but a rogue regime committed to the destruction of the United States—or, at least, of Israel. Yet, while Tehran pursues a range of policies that work against U.S. interests, it also has a history of working with Washington, most recently on Afghanistan and Iraq. And, from an American perspective, these interactions have been highly productive.

Watching TV and reading the newspapers one would be led to believe that the participation of U.S. Undersecretary of State William Burns in the meeting with Jalili was the “highest-level” and most significant U.S. diplomatic interaction with the Islamic Republic since 1979. This is factually incorrect. Both Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Secretary of State Colin Powell participated in UN-sponsored discussions on Afghanistan with their Iranian counterpart; Powell also met with the Iranian foreign minister in 2004 in regional talks about Iraq.

Moreover, during the last two decades, working-level U.S. officials have repeatedly engaged in substantive exchanges with Iran over a range of specific issues—over U.S. hostages in Lebanon during the 1980s and early 1990s, over support for beleaguered Bosnian Muslims during the mid-1990s, and over Afghanistan and al-Qaeda during 2001–2003. Most recently, U.S. and Iranian officials have met to discuss political and security problems in Iraq’s postconflict stabilization.

In Lebanon, Bosnia and Afghanistan too, Tehran did much—not all, but much—of what was asked of it. For example, in official U.S.-Iranian negotiations over Afghanistan—in which one of us, Hillary Mann Leverett, participated from 2001 to 2003—the Iranians deported hundreds of suspected al-Qaeda operatives who had fled Afghanistan, warned that insufficient attention to postconflict stabilization would leave pockets of Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters to reemerge later, delivered important regional warlords to the bargaining table to support creation of a pro-American, post-Taliban political order under President Hamid Karzai, and dissuaded anti-American warlords from acting as “spoilers.”

Furthermore, while these negotiations were ongoing, Tehran was not spinning centrifuges or enriching uranium, and Hezbollah—Iran’s chief terrorist proxy—was kept on a tighter leash than has been the case during the last several years.

Even in Iraq, where Iran’s role is often portrayed by the Bush administration and its allies as hostile and destabilizing, Washington’s reluctant participation in Iraqi-brokered security talks with Iranian representatives has had positive results. Since those talks commenced in early 2007, Iran has brokered critical ceasefires between Iraqi government forces and various Shia militias that have helped to lower the overall level of violence in Iraq. Tehran has also provided consistent recognition and support for the U.S.-backed Maliki government in Baghdad—something which America’s Arab allies have yet to do in a sustained way. If one considers the extent to which Iran could be acting through various proxies to damage the U.S. position in Iraq, it is hard to avoid the politically unpopular conclusion that Tehran has actually been relatively restrained in its resort to proxy violence in Iraq during the past eighteen months. And, the record suggests that, if the Bush administration had been more forward leaning in pursuing serious dialogue with Iran over Iraq, Tehran would be cooperating with a wider range of U.S. goals there.

Iranian officials involved in interactions with the United States over Lebanon, Bosnia and Afghanistan have told us that Tehran worked with Washington on these issues not only because U.S. and Iranian interests overlapped, but also because Iranian leaders hoped that issue-specific cooperation would trigger a broader process of U.S.-Iranian rapprochement. However, successive U.S. administrations terminated such cooperation with Iran, primarily because of concerns about domestic political blowback in the United States or—in the case of the current Bush administration—ideological antagonism toward the Islamic Republic, a charter member of President Bush’s “axis of evil.” This not only imposed opportunity costs on American interests in the Middle East—by foregoing the possibility of better relations with a key regional actor—but also hardened Iranian perceptions that the United States is unwilling to live with the Islamic Republic.

The Bush administration is setting itself up to repeat this costly pattern—by imposing a two-week artificial deadline for Tehran to accept a particular definition of a “freeze” on its nuclear program, and, beyond that, a further deadline for Tehran to accept a particular (essentially British) definition of “suspension” of its uranium-enrichment activities. If this happens, it will be one more missed opportunity in the tortured history of U.S.-Iranian relations.

During his visit to the United Nations in New York earlier this month, Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki noted that he saw an opening for comprehensive dialogue between the United States and the Islamic Republic, not only on the nuclear issue but also on other important issues of mutual concern. Mottaki said that he was positively impressed by a number of new features in the Western approach to Iran, including the inclusion of language in the recently revised P-5+1 incentives package reaffirming the major powers’ “obligation under the UN Charter to refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” (The Bush administration had insisted that such language be deleted from the first P-5+1 incentives package presented to Tehran in 2006.) Mottaki also cited Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice’s signature on the letter accompanying the revised package, along with the willingness of the P-5+1 to explore “modalities” for moving forward diplomatically that would not require the immediate suspension of Iran’s nuclear activities. (Some diplomats describe this as “pre-negotiations” or “talks about talks.”)

On this basis, Mottaki believed that it should be possible to formulate a comprehensive diplomatic agenda between the Islamic Republic, the United States, and other key international players, drawing on the P-5+1 incentives package as well as a letter that Mottaki sent to UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon in May. Unfortunately, it will not be possible to fashion such a comprehensive agenda by imposing, before the fact, narrow definitions of the “freezing” and “suspension” of uranium enrichment and tight deadlines for Iran’s acceptance of such definitions. Many in Iran see such preconditions for serious negotiations with the United States and other important players as, effectively, demands for the Islamic Republic’s unilateral surrender before talks even begin.

If we go down this road again—cutting off dialogue with Tehran in the next two weeks and pushing for more (largely feckless) sanctions at the United Nations in September—it is virtually guaranteed that the result will be more photo ops with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in front of newly installed and more sophisticated centrifuges at Iran’s principal enrichment facility at Natanz. In such an environment, with no diplomatic option to defuse the nuclear issue, concern will grow in Israel and in important parts of the American body politic about Iran’s nuclear capabilities, pushing the United States yet again toward the precipice of another military conflict in the heart of the Middle East.

Instead of pushing arbitrary deadlines and preconditions for moving ahead on “pre-negotiations” with Iran, the Bush administration should be working with its international partners and Iranian representatives to fashion a comprehensive diplomatic agenda for resolving the nuclear issue and achieving broader U.S.-Iranian rapprochement. “Pre-negotiations” on such an agenda are vital, and should not be subject to dysfunctional conditions and requirements.

If a failed Bush administration, in its last months in office, feels it must hold onto suspension as a condition for full-fledged negotiations with Iran, it should nonetheless allow these “pre-negotiations” to proceed. The immediate goal should be to persuade Iran that it is not necessary to expand its nuclear program in provocative ways or move more explicitly toward weaponization. To that end, the Bush administration and its international partners should not dismiss a de facto, undeclared “freeze” of Iran’s fuel cycle activities—and continued transparency of those activities to the International Atomic Energy Agency—as a workable basis for progress.

The next president of the United States, whether John McCain or Barack Obama, will face challenging decisions about Iran and the Middle East more broadly. President Bush’s successor should not find his options dysfunctionally circumscribed because the Bush administration was unwilling to admit error (even if only to itself) and move beyond failed policies.