Repeated suggestions that the United States should negotiate with the Iranians seem to come to naught. President Bush has somehow gotten it into his head that Iran is an “evil state” on a par with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq before our invasion. He wonders how such an evil government can be negotiated with. Sometimes he insists that if Iran changes, or if Iran renounces its present policies, then perhaps we could have something to talk about. One suspects that his demonization of Iran is a reflection through intermediaries of the bitter hostility of Israel to Iran, because of Hezbollah and because of a real fear that Iran might develop a nuclear weapon that would threaten the existence of Israel. The close connection between the thinking of the neocons that has been so influential in this administration and support of Israeli objectives is well known. (Incidentally, it is odd that concern for Pakistan’s already existing nuclear capability remains muted, in spite of the fact that Musharref might be unseated by an Islamist coup at any time and Pakistan has a record of sharing nuclear information with other states.)
Two recent events have affected the possibility and usefulness of negotiations. First, nationwide local elections including an election of the “experts” who choose the actual head of state has resulted in a setback for Ahmadinejad in Iran. The moderates and reformists have made critical gains. This would seem to offer an opening to any power that really wanted to engage the Iranians. Moreover, the exercise itself has once again shown that Iran is in no way in the league with North Korea and Saddam’s Iraq. It is a much more modernized and vibrant state, with possibilities for real choice and discussion, in spite of the continuation of controls over the media and the jailing of opposition figures.
Second, and less promising, the United States and Great Britain have announced that they are increasing the size of their fleets in the Persian Gulf. This reversion to “gunboat diplomacy” will hardly make Iran’s leaders anxious to negotiate about anything. Neither is it likely to be well received by the Iranian opposition that remains hotly nationalist in spite of everything.
At this juncture, two American diplomats who have participated in past negotiations with Iran have published an Op-Ed in the New York Times (December 22, 2006) that argues persuasively that the Iranians are never going to be willing to negotiate about particular items in an American agenda. They have been repeatedly disappointed by narrower agreements. For example, they cooperated with us in the defeating the Taliban, but in the end received nothing in return but hostility. Against this background Iran will need to be offered a broad and open agenda. In particular, it wants security guarantees from the United States and a guarantee that we will respect its borders, and no longer work for “regime change”. (The authors of the Op-Ed tell us that what they print is a censored version of what they wanted to say. But for our purposes here, the question of censorship is irrelevant. Their main points get through.)
As Baker, in discussing his Report, has pointed out: “If you have problems in a relationship, you sit down and discuss them. And you cannot have such a discussion if you insist that your partner yield on major points before the discussion begins.” One can only hope that this administration reconsider the Report’s recommendations for talks, and not just talks to avert catastrophe in Iraq. Iran and the United States share many more interests than that.