commentary

(Washingtonpost.com)

July 22, 2007

How to Talk to Iran

by James Dobbins

After an eight-week hiatus, the American and Iranian ambassadors in Baghdad are scheduled to meet soon to discuss Iraq. Some accounts portray these encounters as a departure from decades of noncommunication. In fact, American and Iranian officials have met many times over the years.

Perhaps the most constructive period of U.S.-Iranian diplomacy since the fall of the shah of Iran took place in the months after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Many believe that in the wake of Sept. 11, the United States formed an international coalition and toppled the Taliban. It would be more accurate to say that the United States joined a coalition that had been battling the Taliban for nearly a decade. This coalition — made up of Iran, India, Russia and the Northern Alliance, and aided by massive American airpower — drove the Taliban from power.

The coalition then worked closely with the United States to secure agreement among all elements of the Afghan opposition on the formation of a broadly based successor to the Taliban regime.

As the American representative at the U.N. conference in Bonn, Germany, where this agreement was reached, I worked closely with the Iranian delegation and others. Iranian representatives were particularly helpful.

It was, for instance, the Iranian delegate who first insisted that the agreement include a commitment to hold democratic elections in Afghanistan. This same Iranian persuaded the Northern Alliance to make the essential concession that allowed the meeting to conclude successfully.

Many who have urged the Bush administration to talk to Tehran about Iraq have hoped that this Afghan experience could somehow be replicated. Such an outcome, while highly desirable, faces considerably longer odds.

Our 2001 talks in Bonn were not secret. My Iranian colleagues and I met continuously — at breakfast or after midnight — as the need arose, in full view of the other government representatives and dozens of Afghans. But our discussions were not attended by the sort of intrusive media attention devoted to the most recent U.S.-Iranian dialogue. We were not forced to justify our behavior to skeptical domestic audiences after every encounter.

Neither were we subjected to micromanagement. After the spring meeting in Baghdad, U.S. envoy Ryan Crocker had to refer back to Washington an Iranian proposal to hold a second meeting, which took two months to gain approval. In contrast, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell authorized me to meet anywhere, anytime, on any matter with any Iranian official, as long as our discussions related to Afghanistan.

In 2001, we were dealing with representatives of Iranian President Mohammed Khatami, a moderate, reformist leader looking for better relations with Washington. Today, Crocker is meeting with officials of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a radical populist who has shown little interest in U.S.-Iranian accommodation.

If the Iranian position has hardened and strengthened since 2001, that of Washington has both hardened and weakened. U.S.-Iranian cooperation then was toward a common victory. Tehran is now being asked to help retrieve an incipient American defeat. This will be a harder sell.

Only weeks after Hamid Karzai was sworn in as interim leader in Afghanistan, President Bush listed Iran among the "axis of evil" — surprising payback for Tehran's help in Bonn. A year later, shortly after the invasion of Iraq, all bilateral contacts with Tehran were suspended. Since then, confrontation over Iran's nuclear program has intensified.

Washington has accused Iran of supplying Iraqi militias and Afghan insurgents with weapons to attack American troops. Iran, for its part, has arrested several Iranian American citizens on what appear to be spurious charges.

Yet Washington and Tehran still have largely coincident objectives in Iraq, as they did in Afghanistan almost six years ago. Neither wants Iraq to disintegrate. Both want the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to succeed. Indeed, Iran may be the only one of Iraq's neighbors to share that interest with the United States.

But the situation that both nations confront has become ever more desperate, while relations between the two governments are more hostile and their discussions subject to more scrutiny.

If they are serious, both sides should try to make their dialogue more private. Prospects for progress would be greatly increased if the conversations could be held frequently, informally and confidentially. Public meetings, held at eight-week intervals, the main purpose of which is to exchange complaints, are unlikely to produce anything of value.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, recently proposed that the U.N. secretary general convene an institutionalized dialogue among Iraq, its neighbors and others with a stake in that country's future. He suggested that representatives of these governments begin meeting regularly at ministerial and lower levels. Such a forum, where American and Iranian diplomats would necessarily encounter each other daily, could provide the ideal framework for meaningful dialogue.


The writer directs the International Security and Defense Policy Center at Rand Corp., a nonprofit research organization. He was the Bush administration's first envoy for Afghanistan after Sept. 11.

This commentary originally appeared in Washingtonpost.com on July 22, 2007.