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May 17, 2006

US-Iran Ties: Is the Pen Mightier Than the Sword?

Secret talks may be in progress in an attempt to ward off a military confrontation

by Leon Hadar

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 nuclear superpowers.

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 in Congress.

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 article 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.

Diplomatic Negotiations

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 Hamas government.

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 initiative.

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.

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  • Leon Hadar is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan). He is the former United Nations bureau chief for the Jerusalem Post and is currently the Washington correspondent for the Singapore Business Times. Visit his blog.

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