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Tehran Wants to Talk

Prepared by: Robert McMahon, Editor
May 25, 2006

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Iran's political establishment appears to be reaching out to Washington for direct talks to try to resolve the dispute over its nuclear program. The Washington Post quotes analysts, foreign diplomats, and U.S. officials as saying Tehran has been using a range of intermediaries to convey to the United States its interest in talks. Iran's Supreme National Security Council chief and top nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, reportedly sent such a message through UN nuclear agency head Mohammed ElBaradei, who had high-level meetings in Washington this week. ElBaradei declined to directly mention Larijani but described himself as an "honest broker" between the United States and Iran who brings "their different perspectives to each other."

The Bush administration believes Iran is trying to shift the focus to Washington rather than respond to calls by the UN Security Council and International Atomic Energy Agency to suspend its program and accept nuclear fuel from abroad. President Bush, in a joint news conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, deflected questions about direct talks with Iran. "It's their choice right now," he said. "They're the folks who walked away from the table. They're the ones who said that, 'your demands don't mean anything to us.'" White House spokesman Tony Snow, amplifying, said "there may be some opportunities" for direct talks, but they depend on Iran suspending its uranium-enrichment program, which Washington suspects is cover for a nuclear bomb program (USA Today). Arms proliferation expert Paul Kerr tells Bernard Gwertzman any such concession by Iran would likely have to include a U.S. pledge not to seek regime change.

International calls for U.S.-Iran talks have intensified since Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad earlier this month sent a letter to President George W. Bush. The rambling letter repeated criticisms of U.S. policy and of Israel, but many believe that more important is the fact of the correspondence itself—the first by an Iranian leader to a U.S. president in nearly twenty-seven years. It is still unclear how the gesture is viewed by Iranian policymakers: A visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Affairs, Mehdi Khalaji, cites influential domestic critics of Ahmadinejad's letter. CFR President Richard Haass discussed the challenges of negotiating with what he called "several Irans" in this recent interview with cfr.org. Iran's various centers of foreign policymaking are examined in this Backgrounder.

CFR Senior Fellow Ray Takeyh and the Eurasia Group's Clifford Kupchan point to the influence of Iran's pragmatists, whose position could be strengthened by dialogue with the United States (Boston Globe). Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Affairs and the International Crisis Group's Karim Sadjadpour differ over the merits of direct U.S. engagement with Iran in this Online Debate.

Recasting the Iran nuclear talks may sound appealing because the current round of international diplomacy seems to be going nowhere. The five UN Security Council permanent members and Germany continue to discuss a package of sticks and carrots seeking to secure Iranian agreement. But Iran, which asserts its right to uranium enrichment, has shown no interest in the carrots, and Russia and China have effectively blocked the most meaningful sticks the council can use—the threat of sanctions and possible military action. This web commentary from Alexei Arbatov of the Russian Academy of Sciences says the Russian position, committed to talks but not action, "seems to provide Tehran with great freedom for diplomatic and rhetorical maneuvering." Yale history professor Abbas Amanat says diplomacy is still a better course than sanctions or a U.S. military response, which he warns would produce an outcome "not only disastrous but, in the long run, transient" (New York Times).

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