When to Talk to Iran

Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said that Israel “will disappear soon” and President Bush responded, saying, “if you’re interested in avoiding World War III” then stop trying to make nuclear weapons.  Some believe the two nations need to change the nature of their discourse.

For more than four years, Germany, the United Kingdom and France have been engaged in talks with Tehran regarding that country’s nuclear program.  The United Nations has twice sanctioned Iran and provided opportunities for the regime to account for its actions.  All the dialogue has failed to stop Tehran’s uranium enrichment program and the Persians may have used those years to advance their nuclear program past the point of no return.  Recently, Ahmadinejad claimed that Iran has 3,000 working uranium-enriching centrifuges and US experts say 3,000 centrifuges are enough to produce a nuclear weapon, perhaps within a year.

Israel dismisses more talk as the solution to Tehran’s nuclear threat.  “Talks never did, and never will, stop rockets,” said Ehud Barak, Israel’s defense minister.

Efraim Halevy, a former head of the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad, is one of a number of people calling for more dialogue with Iran.   Halevy says the west must be creative when conducting diplomacy with Iran and it must speak to Iran’s “national aspirations.”  He fails, however, to explain how one defines “national aspirations” apart from the hateful rhetoric spewed by its leaders.

Halevy suggests that the Iranians really “know that acceptance of Israel is not just something they have to accept but something that might bring their deliverance.”  That’s a curious statement about a country that overtly supports anti-Israel terror groups Hamas and Hezbollah.  

The most bizarre reason Halvey gives for talking to Iran is “they don’t know how to extricate themselves” from confrontation with the west.  He believes the west must “find creative ways to help them escape from their rhetoric.”

“Extricate themselves”?  The fact is that the mullahs control their radicals and apparently talks and economic sanctions have yet to cause any change in their regime’s behavior.  

Finally, Halevy suggests war talk about Iran is a mistake. "Sensible Iranians are not in short supply," he confides. The question is, however: Do the "sensible Iranians who are not in short supply" have any power to change Tehran’s radical course?  There were sensible Germans during Adolph Hitler’s time but they had no influence over his regime.  

James Dobbins, the Bush administration’s first envoy to Afghanistan after September 11, cites his experience negotiating with Tehran as an example for future US-Iran nuclear talks.

Dobbins says future talks with Iran should be kept private.  “Prospects for progress would be greatly increased if the conversations could be held frequently, informally and confidentially,” Dobbins contends.

The fact is, however, that the US has talked with Iran privately through numerous representatives such as the Swiss and at various international forums.  Other than the limited help Iran provided with Afghanistan, which parallels their national interests, other talks have come up empty.

Walter Isaacson, president of the Aspen Institute and former chairman of CNN,  suggests that talking with Iran somehow will make the mullahs behave less like a “revolutionary cauldron and more like a traditional nation-state.”  

Isaacson says “our current conceit,” which is denying Iran the honor of direct discourse, “hurts us more than it hurts Iran.”  He argues that for “27 years we have relied on unilateral sanctions and diplomatic chilliness to persuade Iran to moderate its behavior….  That hasn’t exactly worked.”

He says former secretary of state Henry Kissinger’s negotiations with the Chinese illustrate how the US ought to conduct talks with Iran.  Kissinger did not try, says Isaacson, “…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.”  

There should be no preconditions to US-Iran talks, argues Isaacson.  We should initially talk issues like roles in Iraq and how to stabilize Afghanistan.  Next, he contends, we should permit commercial deals with Iran’s private sector hoping to build a middle-class constituency for stability and greater integration into the world economy.

Mohammed el-Baradei, the Nobel Prize-winning director general for the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, accuses the West of “…spinning and hyping the Iranian issue.”  He believes there should be talks with Iran and they should “follow the North Korea model.”  

The record with Pyongyang is anything but a model of reliability.  North Korea has been predictably unreliable and manipulative.  While the west talked, “great leader” Kim Jong-iL built and tested a nuclear weapon.  Is that an acceptable model for Iran?  

On October 17, 2007, US Senator Chuck Hagel wrote President Bush a letter calling for “direct, unconditional, and comprehensive talks with the government of Iran.”  He warns that “…unless there is a strategic shift [from the current situation], I believe we will find ourselves in a dangerous and increasingly isolated position in the coming months.”
Hagel suggests the US use the November report by IAEA director general el-Baradei to his board of governors to provide an opportunity to advance the offer of bilateral talks.  It’s noteworthy that el-Baradei recently told the UN general assembly that “Iran has not suspended its enrichment related activities, and is continuing with its construction of the heavy water reactor at Arak. This is regrettable.”

These enthusiasts for unconditional, creative, private and North Korean-style talks have their heads in the sand.

El-Baradei’s cohort, former UN-Iraq weapons inspector Hans Blix, believes that Iran’s nuclear ambition is more serious than was the case with Iraq in 2003.  He says that Iran has “a large nuclear sector with two nuclear power reactors that are ready to go into operation, research reactors going on, a lot of people and a lot of money.  Therefore the suspicions and concerns about Iran and enriched uranium are far more substantial than they were in the case of Iraq,"

The best advice regarding Iran comes from President Ronald Reagan.  On January 11, 1989, he delivered his farewell address to the nation providing advice regarding the way-ahead with the Soviet Union which also pertains to Iran today.  “We must keep up our guard,” he warned.  “It’s still trust but verify.  It’s still play, but cut the cards.  It’s still watch closely. And don’t be afraid to see what you see.”

It’s clear that those who support talks at any cost are “afraid to see what you see.”  

We should talk with those who can be trusted — but verify, as President Reagan advised.  There is little reason to trust Iran. It is a hate spewing, terrorist supporting regime seeking nuclear weapons.  Clear verifiable conditions must be set before we launch discussions with the mad mullahs.