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Should the U.S. Negotiate Directly with Iran?

Discussants: Karim Sadjadpour, associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Patrick Clawson
Updated May 19, 2006


Pressure on the United States to deal directly with Iran has intensified after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent President Bush a letter. Two experts debate whether this proposed option is a smart strategy to resolve the current nuclear impasse.

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Patrick Clawson Patrick Clawson, deputy director for research, Washington Institute for Near East Policy

May 19, 2006

Dear Karim,

When I was at the International Monetary Fund (IMF), we were often criticized by those who said that the countries we were helping were worse off a few years after we arrived than they had been before we got there. That was almost always true, because the countries only called us in after they went off a cliff—not surprisingly, they had been better off when they were on top of the cliff than after they fell off. Our job was to figure out how to help them climb back.

So too when the Europeans began their effort in September 2003, Iran's nuclear program had just come to light, and its determination to pursue that program had set Iran on a course for a major crisis in its relations with the rest of the world, as it became so self-confident that it could fend off world pressure. The increasing belligerence we have seen from Iran since then is the natural product of the progress on the nuclear program.

How well has international diplomacy responded to this crisis? In the many critiques about how the Iraq crisis was handled, we are often told that the most important characteristics of diplomacy—which the Bush effort on Iraq is faulted for lacking—are forging a broad consensus and being patient (because progress will be slow). By those criteria, the Iran effort is doing well. In past political and business dealings, Iran's negotiating style has been to repeatedly say no up until the last moment when then a deal is done, and that is likely how the nuclear affair will unfold.

As for the problems in U.S.-Iran relations during the last twenty-seven years, the United States is not the master of the universe, capable of bending everyone to its will. Asked about how to improve U.S.-Iran relations, an Iranian leader responded, "U.S.-Iran relations are excellent! There are none." Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei said repeatedly that discussions between Iran and America were as pointless as discussions between the lamb and the wolf. Iran is—and has been for decades—the only country in the world which refuses to allow U.S. diplomats on its soil. The sad reality is that appears Iran's leaders have not been interested in the path of re-integration with the world community because they agree with you that this could lead to a more tolerant Iran, which they do not want.



Karim SadjadpourKarim Sadjadpour, Iran analyst, International Crisis Group

May 19, 2006

Dear Patrick,

I fear the near-exclusive focus on short-term tactics comes at the expense of thinking about what it will take to bring about a big-picture solution. Let's revisit what's transpired the previous three years and judge the efficacy of your favored EU-only led approach on its merits.

In comparing the Iran of September 2003 (when the Iran-EU-3 accords officially commenced) to the Iran of May 2006, it is clear that today's Iranian foreign policy is more belligerent, its regional behavior more problematic, its domestic behavior more oppressive, and most concerning, its nuclear strategy more aggressive. If you deem this a success I would hate to see what you classify as a failure!

More broadly speaking, let's be realistic about what three decades of no official U.S. dialogue with Iran has achieved in terms of influencing Iranian behavior: Twenty-seven years after the 1979 revolution, Iran continues to sit atop the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism, continues to play an unconstructive role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, continues to repress its own population, and is inching its way toward a nuclear weapons capability. I dare say if the US government were a private sector company it would have scrapped its Iran policy long ago for failing to achieve return on investment.

I believe there are two equally plausible visions for Iran's future. One is a hostile, backward-looking nation increasingly isolated from the international community, but with enough oil wealth to fund military and paramilitary groups which successfully repress popular demand for change for years, if not decades. An Islamic Cuba, potentially nuclear-armed.

The second scenario is of a country re-integrated into the international community, with increased foreign investment, a strengthened middle class, a burgeoning private sector, and a free flow of tourists and members of the Iranian diaspora visiting freely. It is this scenario which will provide fertile ground for Iran's transition to a more tolerant and representative system, non-nuclear armed and at peace with the international community.

Patrick, you are an impressive student of Iranian culture and Persian language, so rather than conclude my end of the debate with a dry policy observation, I will sign off hoping that one day soon U.S. and Iranian leaders will subscribe to the wise counsel of Iran's storied 14th-century poet, Hafez:

Derakhte doosti benshaan, k' kaame del b'baar aarad
Nahaale doshmani bar kan, k' ranje be shomaar aarad

Plant a tree of friendship, to bear you fruits of delights
Pluck a seedling of enmity, to spare you countless plights

Best wishes,

May 18, 2006

Dear Karim,

It is intriguing to watch Americans who laud trans-Atlantic cooperation express such skepticism about European objectives. Being allies means at times taking the back seat and letting your partner take the lead. That position comes unnaturally to Americans, who feel that unless they are in charge, then they really are not making a full effort. I sometimes wonder how such people get along with their spouses: Insisting that you must always be in charge is not a good recipe for a relationship. On the issue of Iran, Tehran will find more credible a stick which Europe raises, and America will find more necessary agreeing to extend that carrot which Europe says is needed. Were America to barge in to the middle of Europe's party, the costs could be high. You underestimate the potential cost if diplomacy goes badly. The cost of [former National Security Adviser Zbigniew] Brzezinski's last failed diplomatic initiative to engage Iran (in 1979) was the hostage takeover, which has poisoned U.S.-Iran relations for twenty-five years.

I do not know who you speak to in Paris and Moscow, but my interlocutors there are already suspicious that Washington is plotting behind their backs—hardly surprising, since there are many in this town who are doing exactly that. Many of my conservative acquaintances would be delighted to use a U.S.-Iran deal to say, "See, we told you that it is unnecessary to work with Europe and Russia to accomplish U.S. purposes, so let us ignore them from now on." Make no mistake: That would be the lesson many of my fellow Republicans would draw from any U.S.-Iran deal. Fortunately, I see little chance that they will be able to make this argument, because reaching a U.S.-Iran deal would require the approval of the hardliners on each side, and they will not sign off on the deal unless it includes each and every issue which is near and dear to their hearts—meaning the deal would have to be the kind of "grand bargain" which could require years of negotiations and provide ample opportunity for Iran to stall, which would likely convince the U.S. side that the negotiations were not worth pursuing because Iran was using them to shield progress on its nuclear weapons ambitions.



May 17, 2006

Dear Patrick,

You note that, "the sad reality is that Americans trust the judgment of Jacques Chirac about the Iran nuclear issue more than they trust that of G.W. Bush." Indeed, the very fact that the American heartland is now taking their foreign policy cues from the leader of France—France!—is indicative of a misguided U.S. approach.

You are absolutely correct in pointing out the long history of failed communications and missed opportunities between the two sides—dating back to 1979. But the stakes have never been as high as they are now. The future of nuclear nonproliferation, Iraq, and regional peace and security hang in the balance, and there is a linear correlation between U.S.-Iranian relations, Iran's role in Iraq, Iraq's future, and the fate and well being of 140,000 U.S. troops. I for one am not confident that the Europeans will pursue US interests with the same care and vigor that we would.

You write that, "diplomats should always be ready to go once more into the breach—unless that would be to fall into a trap. And a trap is just what Tehran has in mind." We should not succumb to the same conspiracy theories and manias as the reactionaries in Tehran, who have long been opposed to U.S.-Iranian direct relations on the grounds that Washington is simply trying to entrap Tehran in its lair. While the approach of Iran's radical right masks their own lack of confidence and insecurities, I for one have complete confidence in the ability of U.S. diplomats to avoid traps and do their jobs successfully. What's more, the costs of a failed diplomatic approach are infinitely lower than the potential costs of an escalatory approach which ends in military confrontation.

To me it seems futile to continue to insist on a European-led initiative which failed to produce a binding breakthrough the first time around (over a two-and-a-half-year period), especially given that you seemingly agree that the "scared Europeans" have little confidence in their abilities to succeed a second time around. Given recent European insistences, publicly from German Chancellor Angela Merkel and privately from senior French officials, that the United States talk to Iran, I am somewhat puzzled by your assertion that bilateral talks "would only feed suspicions in Europe that Washington and Tehran were cooking up a deal that would cut the Europeans out." If a U.S.-Iran deal were on the verge of being reached which would put this nuclear headache to rest, I am utterly confident the EU's collective advice to the United States would be to "cook away!"

When it comes to Iranian democracy and human rights, you note that the "European record of raising issues of democratic reform with Iran is darn good." The Europeans may have done a pretty good job raising these issues (although their silence after the regime's mass vetting of reform-minded candidates in Iran's 2004 parliamentary elections was deafening), but they're the first to admit that their return on investment has been a great disappointment. Beyond simply raising the issues of democracy and human rights, I believe the advent of U.S.-Iran bilateral talks would give Washington a chance to actually deliver tangible results on these issues.

All best regards,

May 16, 2005

Dear Karim,

The long history of U.S. dialogue with Iran is unbroken by any successes. The first high-level official contact was the November 1979 meeting between then National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and Iranian Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan—a meeting which created suspicions in Tehran the two sides were plotting against the revolution, leading three days later to the takeover of the U.S. embassy and the seizure of American diplomats as hostages. Then there was the Iran-contra affair, which was also not a success for the United States. The record suggests that attempts to work out ambitious breakthroughs with Iran have led to spectacular breakdowns.

Some of the efforts were simply useless, rather than so openly counterproductive. After President Khatami called for a dialogue of civilizations, President Clinton was so eager to speak to the Iranians he once paced back and forth for forty-five minutes in the UN basement hoping that Khatami would pass by for a "chance" encounter carefully arranged in advance—but no such luck. For President Bush, a defining moment in how useful are talks with Iran was the Bonn conference about Afghanistan at which the Iranian Foreign Ministry was most helpful, while that very same week the Iranian Revolutionary Guards were shipping tons of weapons to Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasir Arafat.

This only begins to scratch the surface. I have not yet mentioned the copious exchanges of letters. In 1979, right after the revolution, President Carter sent a warm congratulatory letter to Ayatollah Khomeini. After the media once again breathlessly discovered one exchange between the two governments during the Clinton years, the Iranian Foreign Ministry's response was: So what else is new? We write each other all the time, which is true. Some of the letters have been about very delicate issues, such as when President Clinton wrote President Khatami to ask his assistance in arranging interviews with two suspects in the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing of a U.S. Air Force barracks in Saudi Arabia (he got nowhere). In short, the two governments have had no shortage of ways to communicate—the problem has been the communications have systematically led to failures.

Despite this sad record, diplomats should always be ready to go once more into the breach— unless that would be to fall into a trap. And a trap is just what Tehran has in mind. Iran has spent three years arguing loudly that all the international complaints about its violations of its NPT obligations are actually a ruse, that the real issue is the political dispute between the United States and Iran—which can only be settled by the two sides sitting down. In other words, Iran's goal has been to convert the nuclear issue from a dispute between the world and Iran into a U.S.-Iran dispute about Iran's foreign policy orientation. Indeed, when Iran approached the United States about direct bilateral talks in spring 2003, this coincided with Iran's nuclear issue coming before the IAEA Board of Governors—and Tehran proceeded to run around the world telling governments that the bilateral U.S.-Iran talks would obviate any need for the IAEA to consider the Iranian nuclear portfolio. Not surprisingly, Iran's attempt to frame the talks tipped the scales in Washington against such bilateral talks.

Another weighty argument against bilateral U.S.-Iran talks is that the U.S.' closest allies—namely, the Europeans—have taken up the burden of negotiations. Since Washington was more than a bit busy with its commitment in Iraq, the European effort was well appreciated. Europe has been leading not just on the nuclear issue. In fact, Europe and Iran spent years in a critical dialogue, including years of negotiations about a Trade Cooperation Agreement. Those negotiations broke down precisely over the European insistence that progress had to be made on human rights. Indeed, the European record of raising issues of democratic reform with Iran is darn good. And when then British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw spoke in March about the importance of supporting the cause of reform in Iran, his words resonated with Iranians much more strongly than did any similar statement by George Bush, about whom many are suspicious. When the Dutch government commits funding for expanded broadcasting to Iran, no one suspects that The Hague is secretly plotting "regime change"—yet rumors fly when Washington proposes to do the same. When the EU commits 6 million euros in support of civil society groups in Iran, analysts and the media do not rush to condemn the funding as the kiss of death for these groups—while any action by Washington to help such groups brings out the negative publicity. In short, Europe has been a vital voice for reform in Iran, while the United States has been handicapped.

European leadership on the Iran issue is highly appropriate at a time when so many around the world and around the United States question the judgment of the Bush administration. The sad reality is that Americans trust the judgment of Jacques Chirac about the Iran nuclear issue more than they trust that of G.W. Bush. Given this reality, the United States should not engage in bilateral talks with Iran, which would only feed suspicions in Europe that Washington and Tehran were cooking up a deal that would cut the Europeans out. When Europe feels that an American contribution is needed to make a deal work, they are well positioned to explain to the U.S. government what is necessary and why—and the record of the negotiations over the last two years has shown that when called upon to contribute, the Bush administration has done so. This is the right way to go: Europe in the lead, the United States in a supporting role. That is not a natural posture for the State Department, Washington-centric analysts, or scared Europeans to accept, but it is the best position for moving forward with Iran.



May 15, 2006

Dear Patrick,

These days, when I think about U.S. policy toward Iran, Winston Churchill's old adage about democracy comes to mind: Dialogue with Iran is the worst option available, save for all others. After twenty-seven years of mutual mistrust and ill will, dialogue with Iran will undoubtedly be difficult. But what are the alternatives?

In my interviews with senior European officials over the past three years—including members of the EU-3 nuclear negotiating team—it is readily apparent that none of them believe a binding resolution to the Iranian nuclear predicament can be reached absent a greater U.S. role, be it greater U.S. incentives or, preferably, direct dialogue with Tehran. IAEA chief Mohammed ElBaradei has consistently said the same thing, as has UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. 

Aside from the nuclear issue, we should disabuse ourselves of the notion that dialogue is tantamount to appeasement, or would be "selling out" the Iranian people's hopes of democratic change. Quite the contrary, embarking on a comprehensive dialogue with Iran will give the Bush administration the opportunity to match its rhetorical commitment to Middle Eastern democracy and human rights with action. 

For Iranians, the causes of democracy and human rights resonate far louder than obscure demands to enrich uranium. Yet these issues have been conspicuously absent from past EU-3-Iran nuclear negotiations, and recent history has shown that the United States has little leverage to further these causes indirectly, and from afar. A direct American negotiating presence can ensure such concerns have a place at the table.

Right now, communication between Tehran and Washington is filtered through journalists, analysts, and foreign diplomats. But amid real concerns of a U.S.-Iran military encounter, and at a time when tens of thousands of U.S. troops are already in harm's way in Iraq, shouldn't issues of war and peace be discussed between the two parties which have most at stake?

As Bruce Laingen, a retired U.S. Foreign Service Officer who was held hostage by Iran for 444 days, told our esteemed mutual friend and colleague, the journalist Afshin Molavi: "Diplomats should talk, even with our foes. That's what we do. It doesn't make sense for us not to talk to the Iranians. I'm not saying that I would confidently predict a breakthrough, but there must be some sort of dialogue."   

Best wishes,


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