In yet another example of the cascade of ways the Obama administration is abandoning the policies of its predecessor, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced last week the willingness of the Obama administration to talk directly to representatives of Iran. The vehicle for this change of policy was offering an invitation for Iran to attend an American-sponsored conference on the future of Afghanistan.
The United States has not had diplomatic relations with Iran since April 7, 1980, during the Iranian hostage crisis where the American embassy staff in Tehran were held captive by Iranian “students”. The result is that any discussions between the two governments have been indirect, either through intermediaries or at the Iranian interest section in Washington or the Iranian mission at the United Nations in New York. Otherwise, the two countries do not exist for one another officially.
If the United States is going to reopen relations with Iran, the Afghanistan meeting is a good place to start a dialogue. For one thing, there is precedent in the region, where the Iranians have in fact cooperated with the United States on a number of matters of mutual interest regarding Iraq. The situation is parallel over Afghanistan: both the United States and Iran dislike the Taliban and want either to see it remain out of power or at least have its power muted. Both also want to see the flow of heroin from Afghanistan stemmed. It may not be a broad area of mutual interest, but it is enough to get talks started.
Both sides are, of course, inhibited in agreeing to talks. There is a presidential election campaign going on in Iran, and the incumbent president, Ahmadinejad, has made a career or America-bashing that he can hardly reverse without looking ridiculous. The hysterical tone of American policy toward Iran, based in the fear of Iran’s nascent nuclear weapons program, that was set by the Bush foreign policy team makes it hard to talk to the Iranians as well.
It is, of course, the Iranian nuclear program that forms the basis of why the Obama administration needs to talk to the Iranians. Those talks begin with a clear delineation of the state of that program by the Iranians and, to a degree rarely publicized in this country, firm promises by the United States that Iran has nothing to fear if it does not go forward with its program.
The discussions begin with why Iran has a nuclear program that could easily become a weapons program. As I have discussed elsewhere (see Chapter 8 of the new fourth edition of my Cases in International Relations text, “Pivotal States: Confronting and Accommodating Iran”), there are various reasons the Iranians may be unwilling to abandon the nuclear option. One is a question of prestige: some Iranians believe that nuclear weapons are the calling card of great powers and that the inheritors of the Persian Empire need the nuclear option to be able to claim that distinction.
There is, however, another and more basic reason: the belief that nuclear weapons may be necessary for Iranian self-defense. Some Iranians argue that nuclear weapons possession may be necessary to deter the United States, which has certainly muttered frequently(admittedly under Bush) that it might exercise military options. Those fearful of that possibility argue, quite correctly, that the United States has never attacked a nuclear possessor and that Saddam Hussein might still be alive and in control of Iraq had he not abandoned his program. The other nuclear threat some Iranians fear is from the region’s only nuclear power, Israel, which has also grumbled about an Iraq-style excising of the Iranian program.
In the United States, of course, the acknowledged reasons for the Iranian program are much more ominous. They center on the belief the Iranians want these weapons to threaten and, in the extreme, to attack the United States or its allies. More indirectly, opponents of Iran argue the Iranians might make these weapons available to terrorists.
Both sides, of course, deny the validity of the other’s concerns. The United States denies any aggressive intent toward Iran and argues the Israelis are not a threat either as long as Iran does not try to become a nuclear power. The Iranians are skeptical. The Iranians, in turn, deny any aggressive, offensive intent and argue, quite plausibly, that the terrorist connection is ridiculous, since virtually all the important terrorist enemies of the West are Sunni. The United States remains suspicious of these denials.
Clearly, there is much to be gained and little to be lost by making nice with one another. The key to the “nuclearization” of Iran is convincing the Iranians that they do not need those weapons, which means reducing the animosity between the sides. In turn, Iran must convince the West that it presents no threat to them. If that hurdle can be overcome, the rest may become possible. And while it will likely not be easy to get talks started as the two sides circle one another like the proverbial two scorpions in the bottle, meetings about Afghanistan are at least a beginning.
Donald M. Snow, Professor Emeritus at the University of Alabama, is the author of over 40 books on foreign policy, international relations, and national security topics. His most recent book, What After Iraq?, was published in March 2008. This essay was originally published at the What After Iraq blog.