By R. K. Ramazani (First published by The Daily Progress, November 2, 2008)
To talk or not to talk to Iran has been debated ever since President Jimmy Carter broke diplomatic relations with Iran in 1980, but never before has the issue become as crucial as it is today in the presidential campaign. The next president no doubt will have to face this issue.
A growing number of influential former officials and academic experts support talking to Iran. Five former U.S. secretaries of state call for talking to Iran without preconditions. A good number of Iran experts advise unconditional talk with Iran as did this writer in the pages of this paper long before the presidential campaign, and many academics and former policymakers advocate change of U.S. policy toward Iran as took place toward China during the presidency of Richard Nixon.
First, such a change in U.S. Iran policy, however, should aim foremost at obviating thirty years of mutual mistrust and hostility that is rooted in mutual psychological trauma between the two nations. On the one hand, the CIA overthrow of the government of the popular Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadiq and the return of the autocratic shah to the throne in 1953 is deeply seared into the Iranian collective memory. On the other hand, the takeover of the American Embassy in Tehran by militant Iranian students and the humiliating incarceration of American diplomats for 444 days are etched into the American psyche.
Second, the United States should realize that Iran is willing to talk, as evidenced by the fact that moderate former President Mohammad Khatami, in his first foreign policy address in 1998, offered to hold a dialogue with the American people. Later, his government helped America defeat the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, aided the establishment of the Afghan government under President Hamid Karzai, and proposed in May, 2003 to settle all outstanding differences with the United States, including the nuclear issue, support of Hezbullah and Hamas, and the two-state option in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Reportedly, Vice President Dick Cheney refused to consider the Iranian proposal.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, hardliner President Mahmoud Ahmadinejadid, too, has repeatedly said that Iran would be willing to talk to the United States. In July, 2008 he welcomed the participation, for the first time, of the American representative, Under-Secretary William Burns, in the five-plus-one discussions of the nuclear issue with Iran, and said on August 3, 2008 that "Iran has always been willing to solve the long-standing crisis over its disputed nuclear program through negotiations."
The Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, would be willing not only to talk to the United States, but also would endorse U.S-Iran relations when it is in the national interest of Iran. In January 2008, in a speech inYazd he said, "Undoubtedly, when the day comes that relations with America will benefit the Iranian nation, I will be the first person to endorse these relations."
Third, the next U.S. president will need to realize that years of economic and diplomatic sanctions, threats of "regime change" and of strikes on Iran's nuclear facilities, have failed to stop Iran from enriching uranium, which it claims is for peaceful purposes under the Nuclear-Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Fourth, any future U.S. president should acknowledge unequivocally that Iran is a major player in the Middle East, as former Secretary of State James Baker did during the first Persian Gulf War.
Fifth, and most important, the next president should accept the fact that the United States has common interests with Iran regarding a number of crucial issues, including the following:
Stability in Afghanistan and Iraq under representative governments;
Security of uninterrupted flow of Persian Gulf oil supplies to world markets;
Non-proliferation of nuclear weapons worldwide;
Prevention of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East;
Regional security and economic cooperation in the Persian Gulf and beyond;
Cooperation against Taliban insurgents and al-Qaeda terrorists;
Modernization of Iran's oil industry so as to increase world supplies and reduce prices;
Exchange of scholars, students and parliamentarians, among others.
Not to talk to Iran is an unrealistic option. It has not proved to be a viable one in the past and will not be in the future. The change in the White House will provide an unprecedented opportunity for the next president to talk to Iran, otherwise every day that goes by Iran will spin more centrifuges and enrich more uranium that could be converted to a nuclear bomb. Nor would more sanctions work, as they have not in the past. The only practical option is to talk with Iran directly and unconditionally in the enlightened self interest of the United States.
About the author:
R.K. Ramazani is Professor Emeritus of Government and Foreign Affairs at the University of Virginia. He has published extensively on the Middle East and has been consulted by the U.S. government and the United Nations.
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