Democracy Arsenal

« Hard Evidence: the Don't Talk to Iran Line Isn't Working | Main | Anti-Semitism and Middle East Policy »

June 02, 2008

Talking to Iran is the Only Real Option
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

Today John McCain outlined his path forward on Iran.  He started by mocking Barack Obama’s proposals for engagement claiming that they’ve been tried before and failed.  He completely mischaracterized Obama’s position which is about tough and direct negotiations.  He instead argued for continuing the failed policies of the Bush Administration, calling for more sanctions and international pressure and refusing to engage with Iran.   The problem with this approach is that for the past eight years it has yielded no results:  Iran has gotten stronger, its uranium enrichment program has continued unabated, and it now possesses 3,000 nuclear centrifuges as opposed to zero.  The course that McCain is proposing has yielded nothing.  Continuing on this path ensures that at some time in the future whether it be three, five or ten years, Iran will be in a position to attain a nuclear weapon.  At that point the President’s options will be limited to either striking Iran militarily - a costly endeavor that in the long run is unlikely to slow down Iran’s nuclear program - or allowing Iran to go nuclear.   Direct diplomacy won’t necessarily solve all of our problems but it is surely better than the current failed course, and it is worth trying.

McCain argues that the Clinton Administration already tried engaging in 1998 and that the entreaties were rebuffed. He’s right.  Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei vetoed any talks at that time.  But McCain is selectively cherry picking history.  The story of the last 15 years between Iran and the U.S. is one of missed opportunities on both sides.  The best example is from 2003, where right after the start of the Iraq War senior officials in the Iranian Foreign Ministry sent the “Grand Bargain fax” to the Bush Administration outlining what a deal between the U.S. and Iran might look like.  The Bush Administration decided not to respond because of its position of strength at the time and the belief that Iranian reformists couldn’t deliver on their promises. In the late 1980s and early 1990s Iran worked to have Hezbollah release all of the American hostages in Lebanon and in exchange expected greater engagement from the United States.  But while the first Bush Administration had signaled that it would in fact engage after the 1992 U.S. Presidential elections, when they lost, the Clinton Administration decided instead opt for a dual containment policy.  Elements in the Iranian government who had supported engagement with the U.S. ended up feeling spurned.  The story is much more complicated than: “the U.S. has tried talking and Iran has refused.”

McCain also portrays Ahmadinejad as the man to negotiate with in Iran. First of all, Obama is not proposing sitting down for direct talks with Ahmadinejad but with the Iranian government.  Second, as Joe Klein has pointed out - and McCain has refused to acknowledge – Khameini - not Ahmadinejad – runs Iran’s foreign policy. 

McCain also claims that Iran has a comprehensive offer on the table from the Europeans and since it has not accepted, it would never accept an offer from the United States.  But the Europeans don’t have massive armies on both of Iran’s borders.  They are not perceived as being the security threat to Iran.  Iran is concerned about the United States and is afraid that if it came to an agreement with the Europeans, it would then have to renegotiate the entire deal with the United States. Direct talks with the United States would in fact be meaningfully different.

McCain argues that talking with the Iranian regime would empower extremists instead of moderates.  But as Matt Duss points out

 As for “increasing the prestige” of Ahmadinejad, as Iran analysts Vali Nasr and Ray Takeyh pointed out last December, Ahmadinejad’s prestige has benefited from the bellicose rhetoric coming from American conservatives, allowing him “to suppress dissent and divert attention from domestic woes to international crises he is only too happy to fuel.”

McCain also claims that he will support for comprehensive sanctions, but those sanctions will be ineffective if they are not agreed to by countries such as China and Russia, who are significant trading partners with Iran and to this point have stopped the Bush Administration from imposing tougher UN sanctions.  These sanctions are nice in theory but McCain won’t be able to implement them.  In fact, the only way that they could be implemented was if the United States made a genuine effort to engage Iran and its entreaties were rebuffed. Under that scenario the international community would likely be much more willing to go along with sanctions, if it was perceived that Iran was wholly in the wrong and all good faith efforts had been made to resolve the situation.

In the end, McCain’s plan is basically the Bush plan.  If we continue down this track then Iran will simply continue to enrich uranium and at some point whether it be three, five or ten years from now an American President will be faced with the choice of having to either bomb Iran or let it go nuclear.  Instead, what is needed a comprehensive rethink of America’s strategy. 

At NSN we have written a paper on such an approach.  It involves direct and tough negotiations with Iran’s government, without preconditions, on all issues including Iraq, terrorism and the nuclear question.  It’s absolutely critical that these talks take place so that at the very least the Iranians are actually clear about American position and vice versa and to open up a channel for communication.  Our strategy  is also not opposed to economic sanctions and incentives as long as they are used responsibly as part of an actual strategy to get the Iranian government to change its behavior.  Sanctions without a broader strategy are useless and only further alienate the Iranians.  The strategy also argues that while we are strongly opposed to a bombing campaign against Iran and see tremendous costs for such actions, threats of force can sometimes be useful.  But they have to be credible and they again have to be part of a comprehensive strategy to change behavior.  What we have right now from John McCain and the Bush Administration is simply needless saber rattling that inflames nationalist passions on both sides.

No one is actually proposing the straw man position that John McCain posited this morning. No one thinks that we can simply wish this problem away through direct talks.  But many, including the bi-partisan Iraq Study Group, believe that there is some benefit to careful, direct and tough diplomacy. It sure beats McCain’s status quo proposal, which is essentially to do nothing.


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Talking to Iran is the Only Real Option:


Idiots: "which is essentially to do nothing". They have their ears plugged, eyes closed, and mouths shut. Various tactics have been tried, through the UN's nuclear watchdog group, and the EU. Iran isn't the one begging for discussion; it is heading a well thought out direction bent on getting nuclear weapons. Iran would only come to talks to do one thing: delay!

One great confidence building measure could include Persia surrendering Hiz'B'Allah for complete destruction or incarceration by Great Satan.

As the most profficient killers and serial tormentors of Americans in history from WWII til 911 time - that would showcase sincerity on Iran's part and satiate a righteous blood debt that has no statue of limitations.

"Tough' and direct negotiations without preconditions is a non-sequitur.

That is because Obama has nothing to offer of interest to the Iranian Mullah's in return...for what exactly will he offer, pray tell?

Respect?...from Infidels?

Money? Please, they have more than they can spend now.

Iraq? But they believe that liberals will give that to them when they surrender in Iraq...

Favored trade status? What, more economic incentives?

Promises of non-aggression? Uh, they don't have a 'problem' with violence, dude.

Promises of friendship? You must be joking.

Those are the carrots.

Khameini doesn't want any of them...they're religious fanatics

Will Obama threaten? Please, Bush, a far more credible opponent could do nothing, why would a President much more amenable to 'reason' and pacifist liberal input and protest, be of greater concern?

Goldenburg claims that "McCain is selectively cherry picking history". Perhaps, but Goldenburg then assumes that the 'lost opportunity' of 2003 was in fact an opportunity... But without offering any proof, even circumstantial, that the Clinton administration's evaluation; "the belief that Iranian reformists couldn’t deliver on their promises" was not accurate.

That's known as wishful thinking based in historical revisionism.

Here's a news flash: China and Russia, significant trading partners with Iran, who have to this point stopped the Bush Administration from imposing tougher UN sanctions, will continue to do so, no matter what we do. They are not interested in peace or a lessening of tensions. They are interested in geo-political manuevering that lessens the strength and influence of the US.

Reality really is a bitch, isn't it?

The world would be so much more 'reasonable' if unreasonable people didn't exist, but they do exist and in some countries they're in charge...and with no mechanism beyond violence to remove them.

Here's another news flash: the Iranians actually are already clear about America's position and have absolutely no desire to open up a more direct 'channel' of communication. But they are completely interested in the appearance of doing so because of the delay it offers and time it provides in reaching thier goal of acquiring nuclear weapons.

Here's your final news flash: Whomever is elected, but much sooner if Obama is elected, whether it be three, five or ten years, Iran will attain nuclear weapons capability. At that point, the then President’s options will be limited to either striking Iran militarily - or waiting for a freighter to enter New York harbor with a nuke aboard, courtesy of Al Qaeda...

All because we couldn't countenance violence before it was absolutely necessary and beyond dispute, just exactly as with Hitler in the 30' millions will die and that is the price of pacifism.

"At NSN we have written a paper on such an approach. It involves direct and tough negotiations with Iran’s government, without preconditions, on all issues including Iraq, terrorism and the nuclear question."

These are the issues for us but they are not the issues for Iran. For Iran the core issue is military security. Your paper leaves answers to three questions unclear:

1. Are you proposing that we or the international community should go as far as to offer them a degree of security (ie. guarantees) that would make an Iranian nuclear deterrent unnecessary?

2. If not, then are you proposing some combination of positive and negative incentives to make them accept the degree of security that they would have in the absence of a nuclear capability or equivalent outside guarantees?

3. Should prevention of an Iranian capability to produce nuclear weapons be an irreducible US demand as long as the current theocratic regime is in power?

How was it possible for Chris de Burgh to come to Iran and hold a concert there? Are the Iranian women being oppressed by the government in Iran? Is Iran dispatching weapons to Lebanon and Iraq? Is the Iranian government promoting terrorism and violating human rights? Are the Persian Gulf countries planning to support US against Iran? Find all the answers and documentaries on and let me know about your views by commenting on the posts.
Hello Yahoo Mail has been established in order to protest Yahoo mail removal of Iran's name from its list of countries and it was a good pretend to teach the global opinion more about Iran, Persian culture, civilization and lifestyle.
Wait to hear from you
Best Wishes

David Billington, upthread, makes a big assumption about Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons, namely that it is driven by a search for military security and a deterrent capability, and not by other motivations.

It would be unwise to base a strategy for negotiating with Iran on this assumption, both because the assumption itself is likely wrong and because it leaves Iran's interlocutors nowhere to go if they offer security guarantees they consider adequate and Iran does not respond. Nuclear weapons confer national prestige, bragging rights as it were; they cannot be made an effective deterrent without also becoming a threat to neighboring countries. The disadvantage of a weapons program, offsetting its prestige advantages, is that it is expensive and represents a diversion of resources and governmental attention from other things a nation pursuing it may want to do. While some in Iran's government may not have any other things they want to do, this is probably not true of the country as a whole, a fact that Western countries seeking to limit the spread of nuclear weapons should be able to exploit.

American leverage with respect to Iran would be constrained significantly if Iranian government negotiators were our only points of contact, and if we proceed on the assumption that their priorities are what our priorities would be if we were them.

New Direction for This Century

The basis of the article” Russia Can Be Part of the Answer on Iran”, By Charles Schumer, June 3, 2008; Page A19, The Wall Street Journal,
rests on a false statement:
” The Bush administration in turn needs to use every diplomatic tool in its arsenal to halt Tehran's development of nuclear weapons."

A response to the assumption that Iran is developing nuclear bomb is provided by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Tuesday June 3, 2008 (Associated Press):
"Iran is after the peaceful use of nuclear energy and we will strongly pursue and reach it despite the envy of our enemies," he said. "No wise nation is interested in making a nuclear weapon," since it is not logical and can't be used, he added."

Our foreign policy about the world has to restart with a fresh new direction. We are not on the right track anymore. We can't bully other nations into submission.

McCain and Bush are remnants of the past century. His ideas were well suited to the cold-war area between the Soviets and USA. We need to look forward to a new direction for this century.

• US Foreign Policy must be a Reflection of Our National Character: Justice, Peace, Respect for Human Life, and Fair Treatment of all Other Nations.

• The future of our civilization is at risk of global annihilation by nuclear, biological and chemical arsenals of nations. For the civilization to survive, we must eliminate the nuclear arsenals.

• We must rely on the International Court and the United Nations to resolve the regional conflicts.

• The global environment must be protected and the adverse effect of human activities reversed or repaired.

• The global natural resources are diminishing rapidly by the world over population, over harvesting and destruction. These resources include fresh water and agricultural resources for production of food. World has to create equitable management of these resources. The United States must take the leadership position in these areas.


I think the assumption that Iran's nuclear program is divorced from national security motives is at least as open to question as the assumption that it is not. But in arguing that Iran is willing to run the risk of greater sanctions for reasons other than national security, I wonder if you would agree that there is a simple test.

America and Israel fear that Iran wants nuclear weapons to shield a more aggressive foreign policy in the region or to initiate (directly or by proxy) a nuclear strike on Israel. Iran has justified its nuclear program as a purely civilian activity. There is logically a third possibility, ie. that Iran wants a military nuclear capability but for defensive purposes only. We could ask them if this is their reason before offering guarantees as an alternative. If they decline to answer or simply reaffirm their existing position, then we have offered and lost nothing and the world can conclude that their program is not defensive if it does have a military purpose.

The last two questions I asked Ilan are then still relevant.

There is much to be said for trying to engage the Iranian people and not just the Iranian government on a range of issues. On the nuclear question, however, the Iranian people are at one with their government as best we can determine. Of course, that could change under sanctions, but we would have to cross that line to find out. If it is an issue of national sovereignty and prestige, then there is also a danger that the people might turn out to be more militant than their leaders.

Here are the problems with Obama's stance on Iran specifically.

First it assumes that reasonable negotiations will work, and that has been disproved in the past 8 years. First with their continued support for the world most hypocritical terrorist group in Hezbollah. Second with their continued support for Iraqi terrorist groups and sending their special forces troops to fight the US in Iran. This is after Iraq's democratically elected gov't and the US have both sat down and talked with them. Then there's the ultimate bit of evidence in the Nuclear negotiations. We gave them reactors, fuel, and all we asked for was them to stop enrichment(this all while they were still enriching). This sounds a lot like negotiations without preconditions unless you consider asking for something in exchange for another thing preconditions. This agreement was responded to not with a counter offer, but with a rant on Israel.

The role of the president in international diplomacy is like that of the closer in baseball. If there's no chance of winning the game(ie negotiating the last bit or signing the deal) there's little use in wasting the presidents time. The role of the starters and setup men are that of the Diplomatic corp and our negotiators who must get something done in order to lay the ground work for the president to close the deal. Acting like we support them by having our highest diplomat visit is similar to sending Albright to N.Korea, and we see how well that worked.

Also, there are a few incidents which Iran should stop in order to make a presidential visit possible(this may seem like preconditions). Stop supporting terroist groups in Iraq. Stop harassing US, British and other nations ships in the Persian Gulf. Stop Supporting Hezebollah(A huge terrorist group). This is the key they have to change course in foreign policy if they want us to make a key change in foreign policy.

Perhaps I'm missing something here, but David Billington appears to be suggesting that we just ask the Iranian government if they want a nuclear weapons capability for defensive purposes only. If Tehran reiterate its current position (that it is not seeking nuclear weapons and the IAEA and all the other Western busybodies should just never mind trying to verify that) the world can conclude its intentions are not defensive.

In the first place, the world would certainly not conclude that. Secondly, if the Iranians thought that copping to a wish to have defensive nuclear weapons would undermine Western sanctions, why wouldn't they go that way regardless of their intentions (and regardless also of how close Iran actually is to obtaining a nuclear arsenal. If, as I suspect, it is not that close, we don't want to have governments starting to recognize nuclear weapons as a legitimate aspiration)? It is a simple test, all right, so simple it has little chance of proving anything.

"As best we can determine" with respect to our knowledge of divisions within the Iranian government, and between the clerical leadership and the Iranian public, is not good enough. It may well be that the Iranian public is and will always passionately committed to the pursuit of a Persian bomb, but there is little reason to assume this is true now and less to assume it is a view that cannot be influenced from the outside. Fundamentally it is the Iranian government that has substantive reasons for hostility to the United States; the Iranian public has problems of its own, to which neither a nuclear program nor confrontation with Washington over other issues is relevant. If divisions do not exist in Iran, or cannot be created, then I will be prepared to accept that we must make the best deal we can with the mullahs. We're not there yet.

Ah, so much hate directed toward Iran, which has done nothing illegal or wrong, with no mention of the United States or Israel, who have.

But wrongful activity has a price, and now Iran is in the cat-bird seat in the Middle East. This is a direct result of US and Israeli aggression in Iraq and Lebanon. The US claims that Iran is isolated, but the truth is that while Iran is castigated in the West it has powerful friends to its north and east, as well as helpful commercial interests in the West. Plus it has more influence in Lebanon and Iraq than the US does.

Tough negotiations? Yes, tough for the US, which is why the US avoids talking to Iran. No sense negotiating from weakness.


My point is that there are three possible interpretations of Iran's nuclear program. In proposing a test for the second, I should have made clear that Iran would not avoid sanctions merely by declaring that its nuclear intentions are defensive; the point of asking Iran about this would be to open the door to an offer of security guarantees as an alternative to a nuclear capability. In exchange for the guarantees, Iran would have to dismantle its enrichment program.

I raise this only as a question. I'm not sure the US would be willing to go far enough in terms of security guarantees to be credible, and if not, then the question is probably moot. But in that case our diplomatic options are more limited.

Regarding the Iranian people, my understanding is that polling on the nuclear question shows overwhelming support for having a closed fuel cycle but also shows support for NPT protocols against weaponization. The problem, if I understand the US position, is that we do not accept Iran's right to a complete fuel cycle. In pointing out the difficulty that I think exists here, I don't mean to discourage efforts to persuade Iranian opinion to change its mind about uranium enrichment. I certainly hope you are right in your assessment of the prospects for such persuasion.

"so much hate directed toward Iran, which has done nothing illegal or wrong"

The funding of terrorism and the smuggling of weapons into Iraq certainly qualify as illegal.

Constant denial of Israel's right to exist. Calls for it's extermination, including nuclear attack, amounting to calls for genocide. Denial of the historical reality of the holocaust, are but a few examples of the many wrongs Iran has committed.

'Wrongful activity' does have a price and the day will come when Iran's mullah's pay it. The only question is whether Iran's people pay that price as well. And US 'aggression' in Iraq and Lebanon has nothing to do with Iran's sitting in the 'cat bird' seat.

Liberal appeasement and the Media's disingenuous portrayal of the reality in the Middle East are the main factors responsible for Iran's prominence.

Iran a Threat to Israel and the United States!
Are you kidding! Come on, you know better.

Israel has nuclear bombs, and we gave them nuclear capable airplanes to use the bombs. By the way, we helped Israel to put 200 of the nukes together. Israel is our only friend.

Iranians must be jealous of Israeli's nukes. If Iranians don't like Israelis nukes, so be it.

By the way, what is this idea that we have a bad economy, expensive college loans, few professional jobs, and crumpling infrastructure?

Forget about it! We have to worry about Iran; you know they are working on nuclear fuel cycle to make electricity. What do they want electricity for?

My great grandparents used what they had to heat their home, light their house after dark, the good old fashioned way. Why do Iranians want to be like us now? It was good for my great grandparents; it must be good for Iranians now.

Last, we must not talk to these Iranians; Israelis have told us not to do it. Plus, our great President Bush wants to revisit the 1953 regime change and put in place someone like the old Shah. We told him what we expected of him. He knew what we wanted, and he did it. No questions asked.

Kidding aside, you asked for my idea, please read: American Foreign Policy and the World: a New Direction

Post a comment

If you have a TypeKey or TypePad account, please Sign In

Guest Contributors
Sign-up to receive a weekly digest of the latest posts from Democracy Arsenal.
Powered by TypePad


The opinions voiced on Democracy Arsenal are those of the individual authors and do not represent the views of any other organization or institution with which any author may be affiliated.
Read Terms of Use