Are U.S. and Iranian officials holding secret
talks to try prevent the diplomatic tensions between them from deteriorating
into a military confrontation?
That's the question being asked now by diplomats and news organizations as
they search through the current heavy "diplomatic fog" for some signs
of what's really happening out there, as opposed to what both sides are saying
publicly, whether it's the 18-page
letter that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent to U.S. President
George W. Bush, or Washington's most recent statement about the need for a "regime
change" in Tehran.
That experts around the world are considering the possibility that – notwithstanding
the non-friendly rhetoric emanating from both Washington and Tehran – emissaries
from both countries are meeting at some secret location in Pakistan or Germany
probably reflects wishful thinking, based on their reading of Cold War history.
Indeed, some of the most critical moves during two major developments that
took place at the height of Cold War – the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and
the U.S. opening to China in 1973 – involved secret negotiations between representatives
of the U.S. administration and officials in Moscow and Beijing.
In fact, most historians agree that the back-channel communication between
U.S. President John Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev during the 1962
crisis may have helped prevent a major military confrontation between the two
Moreover, the crisis was resolved only following a series of secret negotiations
between the two sides that involved agreements that weren't disclosed until
a few years later, including a decision by the U.S. to remove its nuclear missiles
from Turkey, a move that certainly would have been rejected by the Republicans
Similarly, it would have been unlikely that President Richard Nixon could have
reached any agreement to open talks between the two powers, including his historic
visit to Beijing, through public negotiations with "Red China."
Interestingly enough, during a discussion about Mr. Ahmadinejad's letter to
Mr. Bush that took place in a think tank in Washington last week, one of the
participants recalled that during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Mr. Khrushchev sent
Mr. Kennedy a rambling and threatening letter that Mr. Kennedy decided to ignore
in his response to the Soviet leader while accepting an offer that Mr. Khrushchev
made in another letter.
The foreign policy analyst in the discussion proposed that Mr. Bush respond
to the Iranian leader's recent letter by ignoring some of the more controversial
elements in it, while accentuating the need for refocused attention on common
interests and values.
Another participant in the discussion interpreted Mr. Ahmadinejad's letter
from another perspective: Mr. Ahmadinejad would have no role in U.S.-Iran negotiations,
which would have to involve emissaries speaking for the executive branch in
Tehran that is controlled by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
In fact, that analyst suggested that the radical Iranian president was trying
to preempt a more serious negotiating initiative from Tehran, referring to an
by Hassan Rohani, the supreme leader's representative on the National Security
Council, that was published in Time magazine last week and offered a
negotiated solution on the issues relating to Iran's nuclear program.
Hence, the Americans need to pay less attention to the Iranian president's
sermons and talk directly (and in secret) with Mr. Khamenei's emissaries.
There is no doubt that Mr. Bush, like Mr. Nixon
in 1973, will be facing powerful forces in Washington, including the neoconservative
ideologues in his administration and the powerful Israel Lobby if and when he
decides to engage the Iranians.
But like the anti-Communist Mr. Nixon, Mr. Bush would not be accused of "appeasing"
the mullahs in Tehran but would be seen by most Americans as a leader who was
trying to advance U.S. national interests through diplomatic negotiations and
by avoiding a costly war. Indeed, in realpolitik terms, the current Iran-U.S.
tensions can be resolved by realizing that it is in both sides' interests to
open a dialogue. Mr. Bush could certainly emerge as a "big winner"
out of successful negotiations with Iran: He would be able to use Iranian influence
among the Shi'ites in the region to stabilize Iraq (and Afghanistan), while
Tehran's cooperation could help enhance U.S. pressure on Syria and Palestine's
Oil prices would drop, and Mr. Bush could emerge as a "man of peace."
That would be great for his "legacy," not to mention to his Republican
Party in the coming congressional elections in November. At the same time, the
Iranians would also win. They would be recognized by the U.S. and its allies
as a regional power, not to mention the American money and businesses that could
start flowing into the country.
While at this point, it seems that the Bush administration is offering nothing
by way of diplomatic initiatives, there are signs that its European allies,
led by Germany, are pressing Washington to encourage an evolving Iranian diplomatic
Hence, as it's becoming clear that the chances for getting the United Nations
Security Council to adopt a resolution to "punish" Iran are close
to zero, and that the costs of a U.S. military attack on Iran are going to be
enormous, the choices before Washington now are either to maintain the dangerous
status quo, or to open a dialogue with Iran.
Which explains why talks with Iran could happen. If they do, we won't be hearing
about them until they conclude. Watch for a leading U.S. diplomat to "disappear"
for a few days, and be suspicious if U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
extends a visit to Turkey or one of the Central Asian states.
Copyright © 2006 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.