To Talk with Iran, Stop Not Talking


Mar 3, 2009

This commentary originally appeared in The Washington Post on March 3, 2009.

President Obama has been clear that the United States should talk to Iran. The Iranian regime has indicated on a number of occasions that it was ready to talk to Washington, though it has often accompanied its offers with disobliging statements or limiting conditions. The Obama team is reportedly debating whether it should wait until after the Iranian presidential election in June to launch such a dialogue, both to avoid boosting President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's candidacy and in the hope that by waiting it might end up dealing with Mohammad Khatami, the more moderate former president who recently announced that he would seek office again. But a strong argument against such a delay is the Iranian nuclear program, which continues to move forward. If the dominant imperative is to stop Iran from getting the bomb, every month counts.

Perhaps the simplest — and certainly the quickest — way to launch a dialogue with Iran, and the one least likely to play unhelpfully into the upcoming Iranian election, would be to simply stop not talking to Tehran. For nearly 30 years, American diplomats have been limited as to when and where they could speak to their Iranian counterparts. The president could authorize Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to lift this ban. It's that simple: Whether the diplomat is Obama's ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice; special envoy Richard Holbrooke, on a visit to Kabul or Islamabad; former assistant secretary of state Christopher Hill when he gets to Baghdad to replace Ambassador Ryan Crocker; or other U.S. diplomats, all would henceforth be free to engage Iranians as they do representatives of other countries with which the United States has troubled relations. ad_icon

In this scenario, each American would operate within the limits of his or her existing instructions and responsibilities, as would the Iranians with whom he or she spoke. This is not a formula for negotiating a "grand bargain" addressing all the grievances of both sides or meeting all of each side's needs. Contacts of this limited nature would be unlikely to produce near-term breakthroughs. Eventually, if real progress is to be made, each side would need to establish a privileged, confidential channel through which all issues of interest to both governments could be put on the table. It would be a lot easier to set up and maintain that kind of channel if the principle of direct contacts were established and the practice routine.

Authorizing discussion between U.S. and Iranian officials in a variety of forms would ease the way for more meaningful, comprehensive and eventually higher-level exchanges. Official contacts of this sort would enable both sides to more accurately gauge the other's real intentions, interests and possible areas of flexibility. Such exchanges could also facilitate practical cooperation on specific areas of mutual interest even while the main points of dispute remain unresolved, though neither side is likely to be willing to go far in that direction.

It will prove a lot easier to set up and maintain a confidential and authoritative back channel between Washington and Teheran if any number of openly acknowledged front channels exist and have ceased to occasion great comment. No negotiation can yield results if the two sides feel compelled to hold a news conference every time they meet, as has become the practice on the relatively few occasions that American and Iranian representatives have gotten together in recent years. Indeed, real dialogue may never be launched if one side must make concessions to get it started.

The time for exchanges of presidential correspondence and even face-to-face meetings may come, but that is not where to begin. Dropping the barriers to routine diplomatic exchanges between responsible officials speaking on the basis of existing policy is the easiest, lowest-risk means of crossing the threshold from not talking to talking. It also offers the possibility of getting the dialogue started now, while delaying higher-visibility, higher-risk initiatives until after the Iranian election.

James Dobbins was the Bush administration's first special envoy for Afghanistan, in which capacity he worked with Iranian officials in late 2001 to help form a successor regime to the Taliban in Kabul. He directs the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation.

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