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Talking with Tehran (part II of Experts on the Expected)

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15 November 2007: Talking with TehranSponsored by the World Affairs Council this evening, “Talking with Tehran” was a panel composed of three distinguished authorities, each of whom had recently published a book on the subject of contemporary Iran: Dr. Robert Litwak of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars; Dr. Trita Parsi of the National Iranian-American Countil; and Mrs. Barbara Slavin of USA Today. The moderator was Ambassador John Limbert, a professor at the U.S. Naval Academy with a long history of distinguished foreign service.     And so the brief talks were lively and informative as was Ambassador Limbert’s input. The underlying assumption was the possibility of the present administration negotiating with one third of the “axis of evil,” and almost as a reaction, one of the panelists quoted Ahmadinejad’s praise of one member of the administration, Steven Hadley, who was “a logical thinker,” perhaps implying that others are not. The new president actually did his dissertation on Immanuel Kant. Out of the mouths of real and imagined enemies sometimes emerge many phrases we quote daily without realizing it.     I shall relay as much of the discussion as possible with the caveat that one of the panelists admitted that Cheney does nothing more than plot how soon to attack Iran—that was his contribution to the efforts discussed and ironically his motorcade passed by me as I was walking home from the panel.     Relations with Iran are as bad as they were twenty-eight years ago, said Limbert, who himself was one of the hostages imprisoned by Iran around that time and associated with that country for altogether forty-two years. Two key events have crippled relations between these enemy countries: 1) the CIA ouster of the democratically elected president of Iran in 1953 and 2) the capture of US hostages in 1979.    In the interim name calling has been the norm.    Continued Slavin, many of the Iran hostage takers have since become informants, regretting that action; the clouded relationship between the US and Iran is like a high school prom—no one knows how to deal with the other correctly. Bush I scheduled a meeting in Switzerland in 1990 and then backed out. Clinton, with his policy of dual containment, imposed an embargo, and his Investment Act punished countries for dealing with Iran.     Athletics, a universal escape and joy worldwide, came to the rescue in 1998 when US wrestlers went to Tehran and flew their flag in the stadium; Clinton eased sanctions. Then in 2000 Madeline Albright apologized for the 1953 coup and US support of Iraq in the nightmarish ten-year war with Iran in which 250,000 were killed. But thereafter reconciliation remained remote.     After 9/11, Iranians in Tehran filled the streets in support and sympathy for the US. President Hakimi offered experts on al Qaeda to the US but was denied a visit to ground zero. Nonetheless support was offered against the Taliban, and the US and Iran followed up with monthly talks; between 2001 and 2003 the secret talks continued until Bush II declared victory in Iraq, whereupon he became embarrassed by publication of these talks.     Other opportunites were missed in 2005–6, though Ahmadinejad made overtures. In March 2006, Bush missed another opportunity for communication, worred how the Iraqi Sunnis would react. Short thereafter Condi Rice offered talks if other allies could be present and Iran abandoned its development of nuclear power. Rice followed by announcing that she wants the Iranian government overthrown; the three hundred centrifuges they now have running—but not so well—are said to be able to lead to weapons in five to six years.     Slavin concluded that if severely threatened Iran would summon together its own allies, including Hezbollah and Hamas. We should have continued the communication established in 2003.     Next to speak, Parsi focused on the Israeli factor in US-Iranian relations. In his 1987 book, he had access to only Israeli information, but referred back to earlier times of cooperation between the two countries—how Cyrus freed the Hebrews from their Babylonian exile to return to Israel and rebuild the temple wall. The largest number of Jews aside from Israel now inhabit Iran, 25,000. There were Jews in Iran before Muslims and, in fact, many Iranian Jews are now part of the Israeli governmental structure.     Another fact: Iran is 2,000 km away from Israel, a long distance considering Iran’s potentially minimal capabilities as a serious nuclear threat. Russia and the Arabs threaten both countries. Israel actually lobbied for talks between the US and Iran. After Iraq was defeated, about the time the USSR was dissolved, Israel and Iran became rivals as major powers in the Middle East. US policy thereafter targeted the isolation of Iran.     Israel next feared a possible alliance between the US and Iran because, inter alia, Israel would lose power in its negotiations with Palestine. The deterrence policy was shattered by war with Hezbollah. But deterrence is still possible, according to Brian Halevi, because there are many pragmatic people in Iran. According to Shlomo ben Amil, dialogue with Iran would benefit Israel. War isn’t inevitable.     Among its 2003 proposals, Iran offered to blackball Hamas and others; all Arab countries would recognize Israel if Israel recognized Palestine. We must pursue this opportunity—the offer was made in the presence of the US. But Bush II doesn’t want it.     Will the US bomb Iranian nuclear installations if diplomacy fails, Litwak next asked in his presentation on defining objectives in dealing with Israel.  Does the US want regime change or behavioral change? The US has adopted a “one size fits all” strategy in the Middle East. It maintains the term “rogue states,” which got in the way of effective negotiations with North Korea in 1994, even though Clinton substituted the term “state of concern.”      After 9/11 the threat from Iran was redefined: 1) the strategies of deterrence and containment might lead to the sharing of nuclear armaments with terrorists and 2) this strategy was therefore morphed into regime change; a behavior change simply wouldn’t work without a concommitment regime change.     Such a policy violated international law, which authorizes defensive but not preemptive warfare. Rumsfeld followed with a redefinition of war as regime change without harming civilians. In the midst of all this Muamar Kaddafi of Libya, fearing Rumsfeld’s newspeak, abandoned his nuclear program and offered reparations to families of the Lockerbie tragedy of the late 1980s. The policy of regime change resulted in incoherence, the “cloudiness” initially mentioned by Limbert, in relations with Iran—1) we missed opportunites to uncloud these relations and 2) most important, there were ambiguities about our objectives that allowed Iran to proceed with its own ambiguous program developing nuclear capabilities.     Three options result for the US: bomb, negotiate, or acquiesce. North Korea has advanced its capabilities from two to ten nuclear armaments because Bush II refused to “negotiated with evil.” Korea having threatened “full-scale war,” we need serious diplomacy. Again, we must clarify our objective: regime change or behavioral change—look what happened in 2003 in Iraq. Wrote Thomas Friedman, the choice is excruciating; between radicals who are profiting from the warfare and don’t want peace and the conservatives who want pragmatic solutions, not regime change or behavioral change.       At this point Limbert, recalling the hostage crisis, said a huge opportunity was missed at that time to reestablish relations with Iran and accept their own regime change.+++++In the question and answer period that followed one audience member asked about the consequences of a US attack on Iran. Slavin answered that according to an IAEA report there are neither nuclear capabilities in Iran nor development of them. The consequences of an attack would be devastating and require generations to recover from. Parsi added that the Iranian population likes the US, unlike those in our allied countries. Iraq is a devastating loss in the Middle East, and Iran should not follow. The case for democracy in Iran would no longer exist and elections would go to radicals. Ahmadinejad is clamping down on pro-democracy activists.Said Litwak, despite assertions of Norman Podhoretz, Iran is deterrable. But even a limited attack on its nuclear installationss would provoke fierce retaliations including the closing of the Strait of Hormuz and, as mentioned above, attract the support of many. Ahmadinejad, he said, does not worry about a U.S. attack because we are “rational.”An ambassador in the audience stood up to note that in negotiations the US shouldn’t “overpromise” initially. There are the touch issues of payments required for US positions and the turnover of terrorists POWs.Added Parsi, diplomacy wouldn’t be quick or easy in that the two countries have conducted no overt communications in twenty-eight years. But there are only two choices: to go to war to reshape the Middle East, leaving out Iran as usual. Otherwise it will be difficult for Israel and the other Middle Eastern allies to reincorporate Iran, which must recognize the US as a superpower and it can’t be included in the region without recognizing Israel.Said Slaving, the US should have invited Iran to talks in 1991. The upcoming conference in Anapolis will fail if only “reasonable” parties attend. Israel and Iran should be included.A former State Department official in the audience referred to the instability of the current Iranian government and asked whether regime change might occur without outside interference. One of the panelists answered that the sanctions are working and splitting up the regime. There are lots of challengers to Ahmadinejad and a new president might help encourage internal regime change.An Iranian member of the audience spoke of the necessity of negotiations and the response was that IED attacks on the US are down; the US must recognize Iran as important; we should seek not regime change but political change. Common interests include a “coherent,” undivided Iraq.A further question focused on the role of the nuclear capabilities of Turkey and Israel, which do not contribute to Middle Eastern peace. The assertion was that Israel did not drive Iran to its current nuclear aspirations. What causes a country to go nuclear? To deter the US? Iran has signed the Nonproliferation treaty while Israel has not. Its unclear program resembles India’s.Answered Parsi, Israel does not know where Iran’s nuclear installations are even if it planned to attack. Would it does so anyway to force the US to finish the job? Israeli deterrence is ambiguous. It would not want to reveal its actual nuclear capabilites, but it does possess two nuclear submarines, an effective deterrent to an Iranian attack.After the event, yours truly went up to Slavin to ask what she thought about Bollingen’s treatment of Ahmadinejad when he visited Columbia recently. A big mistake, she answered, but when I followed up by asking whether the controversial leader’s request to visit ground zero was also a mistake, she dodged the question.©     


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Marta Steele is an author/editor/blogger who has been writing for since 2006. She is also author of the 2012 book "Grassroots, Geeks, Pros, and Pols: The Election Integrity Movement's Nonstop Battle to Win Back the People's Vote, (more...)

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