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Pressure builds for U.S., Iran talks

Dialogue on oil prices, Iraq and Israel might help stabilize the region, observers say.

Published May 28, 2006

The United States and Iran would seem to have a lot to discuss these days.

High oil prices. Nuclear proliferation. The worsening Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The threat of civil war in Iran’s neighbor, Iraq.

Why, then, has the Bush administration rebuffed Iranian overtures to talk, most recently that rambling 18-page letter from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?

Several reasons, including reluctance to legitimize a government whose president denies the Holocaust and wants to wipe Israel off the face of the earth. But as so many critical issues pile up, the White House is under growing pressure to start a dialogue with a country it still deems part of the “Axis of Evil.’’

“Twenty-seven years of isolation and containment and sanctions have never been successful — they’ve only created a more aggressive Iran,’’ says Sanam Vakil, an assistant professor of Middle East Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

“In 2006, the United States and Iran have a great convergence of interests in the Middle East. Policies of engagement might lead to moderation and greater stability and security in the region.’’

The United States cut off diplomatic relations with Iran after the 1979 hostage crisis, and the European Union has led efforts to get Iran to scrap its uranium enrichment program, widely feared to be the first step in developing a nuclear weapon.

One expert thinks Washington is hesitant to start direct talks with Iran out of concern that the American negotiating position on the nuclear issue has weakened over time.

“The fact the Iranians have started to enrich uranium means they have passed most of the red lines that the U.S. put in front of them,’’ says Trita Parsi, head of the National Iranian American Council. “It’s one thing to demand it doesn’t start enriching uranium and another to demand that it dismantle its entire program and forget the know-how it’s acquired.’’

But, Parsi says, the United States should not use that as an excuse to avoid a dialogue. “We are scaring ourselves blind on enrichment when there are so many other things to talk about with Iran, like peace in the Middle East, al-Qaida, oil, Iraq.’’

The last time Iran made serious overtures to the United States was in early 2003 after the hugely successful first phase of the war in Iraq. Seeing the speed with which Saddam Hussein’s regime fell and worrying it might be next, the Iranian government, then led by a more moderate president, purportedly offered to freeze its nuclear program if the United States promised not to seek regime change in Iran.

According to the draft of a proposal Parsi obtained, Iran was also willing to accept peace with Israel, cut off assistance to militant Palestinian groups and pressure them to stop attacks on the Jewish state.The United States, then in a position of strength, rejected the offers.

“At that point, Iraq was a success story and the Bush administration did not want to rule out military means or the pursuit of regime change in Iran,’’ says Shai Feldman, head of the Middle East Studies Center at Brandeis University.

Another difference between then and now, he notes, is that Iran’s 2003 offer was more of a true quid pro quo — security in exchange for no nukes — while it is unclear exactly what Ahmadinejad is asking for in his recent letter. Though an implicit invitation to talk, it also contains a litany of Muslim grievances and questions Israel’s right to exist.

While not especially belligerent in tone, the letter “is putting the president of the United States in a position where it’s very difficult to ignore (Ahmadinejad’s) previous statements,’’ Feldman says.

“In a way it’s a beginning of a dialogue but there is no deal in this letter. I’m not sure whether this letter represents a real overture or is essentially an effort to restate Iran’s position and essentially appeal to the Arab, Muslim and Iranian streets.’’

One factor that has long stymied talks between the two countries is confusion over who’s really in charge in Iran, where the religious ayatollahs still hold enormous sway over the elected president and parliament. But in recent weeks, influential Iranians of all stripes seem to have come together in pressing for dialogue with the United States.

According to the Washington Post, Iranian officials have made requests for direct talks through Indonesia, Kuwait, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei .The Bush administration is also getting pressure from its European allies and from Congress, most recently a group of House Democrats and influential members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“The mood in Congress is changing very fast,’’ Parsi says. “People are very concerned that the logical outcome of the current no-diplomacy approach will be another war.’’

The two countries appeared to be making some headway a few months ago when they agreed it would help to hold high-level meetings on stabilizing Iraq, where Iran wields substantial influence. But Iran refused to talk about Iraq when Washington refused to talk about the nuclear program.

Still, Parsi says, Iran “absolutely’’ wants a dialogue with the country it has long called “the Great Satan.’’ Though not about to say so publicly and undercut its image as a growing regional power, Iran more than anything seeks a guarantee of security from the world’s only superpower.

“Talking with the Europeans is useless,’’ Parsi says. “The Europeans can’t guarantee them anything. There are only two critical countries in this equation. One is Iran, the other is the United States.’’

Susan Martin can be contacted at

[Last modified May 28, 2006, 20:55:13]

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