Time to Talk with Iran


Apr 26, 2006

This commentary originally appeared in Washingtonpost.com on April 26, 2006.

American and Iranian leaders are talking a great deal about each other — when they should be devoting far more attention to talking to each other. Both sides are throwing sharp verbal punches with increasing frequency, amid news reports of a possible U.S. attack on Iranian nuclear facilities and continued efforts by Iran's leaders to advance their nation's nuclear capability.

While preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power is a bipartisan goal shared by just about everyone, the risks and perils of a war with Iran are little discussed in public by government leaders and are barely mentioned by the media. Americans continue to uselessly dissect the motives for invading Iraq — when it is too late to do anything about it — while failing to debate the far more fateful consequences of conflict with Iran when it might still be prevented.

There's no question that if Iran developed nuclear weapons the move would further unsettle the Middle East, put U.S. friends and allies at higher risk, raise fears of diversion of nuclear weapons to terrorist groups, frighten Israel, and undercut American authority in the Persian Gulf.

At the same time, a U.S. attack on Iran would likely cause a spike in the price of oil, alienate Muslims, create a split within the NATO alliance, and lead to an increase in terrorism. It might even draw Iranian forces over the Iraqi border to attack U.S. troops.

Faced with these two highly damaging alternatives, the United Sates should instead try talking with the Iranian regime on issues critical to both sides. These talks should extend far beyond the exchanges Washington offered Tehran that would have been limited to U.S. security problems in Iraq (Iran has declined these limited talks).

Summits with the opposition are a great American tradition. President Richard Nixon went to Beijing even though China was aiding North Vietnam in its fight against U.S. forces. President Ronald Reagan proclaimed the Soviet Union "an evil empire" but still negotiated agreements with it on arms control and other issues. And the Bush administration talks directly to North Korea, perhaps the most dangerous and delusional regime in the world. America has never limited itself to talking only with its friends abroad.

U.S.-Iran talks should focus on the salient issues. For America these include a moratorium on the production of materials that could be used for nuclear weapons and the opening of Iran to "at will" inspections of power-generating nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency. In addition regional security necessitates that Iranians stop supporting terrorists, in particular Hezbollah.

Like every other country that has moved down the path to nuclear weapons, Iran must surely be motivated first and foremost by concerns for its own security, making that a key topic for talks with America. In addition to the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq, the U.S. Fifth Fleet offshore, and the American ambition for "regime change" in Iran, the Iranians are worried about unfriendly neighbors surrounding them, including nuclear-armed Pakistan.

As loathsome as Americans find Iran's hatred of the West, calls for the destruction of Israel, and absurd denials of the Holocaust by its president, Iran's legitimate security concerns have to be on any serious agenda for talks.

The United States has given security guarantees to North Korea — a declared nuclear power — but has refused to put that possibility in play with the Iranians. Much is made of the two years of negotiations that Britain, France, Germany, and the European Union have conducted with Tehran. Yet America specifically barred those nations from introducing the idea of potential U.S. security guarantees. That amounts to trying to build bricks without straw, and it doomed European efforts.

A U.S. attack on Iran might temporarily stop the country from going nuclear, but would be the beginning rather than the end of conflict with Iran. The Iranians are a people who pull together when under threat or attack — very much like Americans. Iran's clerical leadership, however much despised by so many of its people, is not set to topple at the first whiff of grapeshot. Instead, it could count on consolidating its rule — just as the Ayatollah Khomenei a quarter century ago used Saddam Hussein's invasion to solidify his power.

A U.S. offer of serious talks with Iran that deal with the most critical issues of security, as seen from each side's perspective, may not be enough to deflect the Iranians from their current dangerous course. But it is far better than relying on the Iranians to blink in their current standoff with the United States. If America will not at least test a "grand bargain" to resolve differences with Iran, the two nations will continue drifting toward war.

Robert E. Hunter is a senior adviser at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization. He was U.S. ambassador to NATO from 1993 to 1998.

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