Talking with Tehran

Don’t get your hopes up. The talks between Iran and the West won’t produce anything but hot air.

The P-5 and Germany will meet with Iranian negotiators on October 1 at a presently undisclosed location. The jump-start for the long-delayed meeting was a remarkable policy paper delivered by the Iranian government to its counterparts on September 9, outlining Iran's hopes for better international cooperation on a long list of vexing problems that virtually everyone agrees need to be addressed. In fact, the Iranian policy paper, with a few minor stylistic edits, is reminiscent of the sort of essay written by idealistic American students applying for admission to graduate schools in international affairs. When I was on the admissions committee at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in the 1970s, these essays were labeled "POEs"-peace on earth. The Iranian paper is bland and all-inclusive. Even the treatment of the Arab-Israeli conflict avoids the usual anti-Israeli rhetoric. It calls for "joint efforts to help the people of Palestine achieve an all-embracing peace." There is no mention of the Holocaust, Israeli war crimes, international Zionism and the perfidy of Great and Little Satans. When it comes to democracy, the paper glows with the "right of the people to have free elections," a phrase that must stick in the craw of the hundreds of brave Iranian dissidents now being held in Iranian jails awaiting show trials to punish them for their political protests against the fraudulent June 12 elections.

Although the Obama administration made negotiations with Iran a central theme of its early foreign policy, this changed after the June 12 elections, and the brutal crackdown that followed. Critics argue that the administration, instead of negotiating with a weakened illegitimate regime, should give greater support to the dissidents, though what exactly can be done to help them without exacerbating their plight is unclear.

Supporters of negotiations make three basic arguments: First, if we don't try to engage Iran and make sure that our agenda, especially concern over the Iranian nuclear program, is considered, then it will be harder to hold together the Western countries that are presently united in the need to put the nuclear issue as the priority. Second, the United States has always negotiated with corrupt dictatorships when it served its interests, most dramatically with the Soviet Union and China during the cold war. More recently, the decision to deal with Muammar Qaddafi, once he agreed to abandon Libya's weapons of mass destruction, is a case in point. In exchange for this deal, Qaddafi was brought in from the cold, even though there has been no change in his basic authoritarian and brutal behavior towards his people. Third, on some issues, especially Afghanistan and stability in Iraq, the United States and Iran do have common interests. The danger is that the Iranians are fully aware of this and could therefore be forthcoming on Afghanistan at the very time when NATO's vulnerability in the country is growing as the Taliban increases its military reach and political control of the countryside. A case could be made for doing a deal with Iran on Afghanistan, even if the nuclear issue remains untouched.

But this is unlikely to happen. The administration knows that in both Israel and the U.S. Congress there is an increasingly short fuse on the nuclear matter, and unless this is put front and foremost, there will be vehement opposition to side deals with Iran on Afghanistan or any other significant issue. What we can safely expect is a lot of hot air and gnashing of teeth between now and the end of the year, the deadline the administration has imposed for meaningful changes in Iran's nuclear program. At that time, absent a deal, the administration will have no choice but to turn to more harsh measures, beginning with enhanced sanctions which, though not likely to get the support of Russia and China, will nevertheless hurt Iran and add further burdens to a beleaguered and fractured Iranian regime.


Geoffrey Kemp is the Director of Regional Strategic Programs at The Nixon Center.