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Conditioning a U.S.-Iranian Dialogue

Author: Greg Bruno
September 15, 2009

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President Barack Obama has confirmed a willingness to press ahead with negotiations to try to end the standoff over Tehran's nuclear program. Talks between the United States, Iran, and world powers are scheduled for October 1, possibly in Turkey (Reuters). And while the Islamic Republic may not be interested (PDF) in dwelling on its nuclear activities, U.S. and other Western negotiators clearly are. "It will be part of that discussion," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs promised this week. But analysts are deeply divided over whether gathering around the negotiating table will prove fruitful. Iran's disputed presidential election changed the calculus, these observers say.

For some, engagement remains the best approach. Mohamed ElBaradei, outgoing chief of the UN nuclear watchdog, welcomed the U.S. decision and said only "through dialogue" (AFP) can the crisis be resolved. Chester A. Crocker, a professor of strategic studies at Georgetown, argues that engagement with rogue states has worked before, most recently with Libya (NYT) and the Bush administration. Robert Dreyfuss, a columnist at The Nation, meanwhile, argues the best strategy now is to "table an offer to Iran to allow Tehran to maintain its uranium enrichment program, on its own soil, combined with a system of stronger international inspections. That's the end game."

But others worry about acquiescing to a regime seen as illegitimate and fractured since June, when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won a controversial second term. Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, has argued for a "tactical pause with Iran" (FP). Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told the Washington Times that the Obama administration must reconcile how to deal with a discredited regime "while at the same time not betraying a popularly driven movement whose success could have enormously positive implications for the United States." John Hannah, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, argues that Obama should focus on aiding the Iranian opposition (Weekly Standard)--the so-called "green wave"--and not propping up "Iran's ruling theocrats and thugs" with promises of dialogue.

To be sure, prospects of a successful sit-down appear slim. Iran has repeatedly failed to come clean (PDF) on its nuclear activities in the past. Efforts to push a new round of sanctions through the UN Security Council are likely to increase if Iran fails to agree to a halt in uranium enrichment, which Washington fears is a precursor to a nuclear weapon. Congress, meanwhile, is pushing a measure that would authorize the White House to penalize foreign companies for selling refined petroleum to Iran.

Yet while some analysts support talks and tougher sanctions, others, like former U.S. Ambassador to the UN John R. Bolton, say only the threat of force (WSJ) can prevent an Iranian nuclear bomb. And in that regard, writes CFR's Micah Zenko, Israel may be prepared to act (LAT) if the United States isn't.

Additional analysis

Columnist Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal warns that Obama's strategy is pushing Israel toward war with Iran.

CFR Senior Fellow Ray Takeyh warns that no Iranian interlocutor would be "sincere and serious about solving the issues" on the table in talks due to the tense domestic political situation.

Kayhan Barzegar, a senior research fellow at the Center for Middle East Strategic Studies in Tehran, writes in the World Policy Journal that despite divisions among Iran's political elite, the nuclear program is a source of continuing consensus.

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