Negotiating with Iran

I’m not going to dwell on the rather surreal op-ed within an op-ed in the New York Times today. I’d rather make a brief comment on the substance of the original op-ed itself (or at least the substance we can discern from the unredacted portions):

The Iraq Study Group has added its voice to a burgeoning chorus of commentators, politicians, and former officials calling for a limited, tactical dialogue with Iran regarding Iraq. The Bush administration has indicated a conditional willingness to pursue a similarly compartmented dialogue with Tehran over Iran’s nuclear activities

Unfortunately, advocates of limited engagement — either for short-term gains on specific issues or to “test” Iran regarding broader rapprochement — do not seem to understand the 20-year history of United States-Iranian cooperation on discrete issues or appreciate the impact of that history on Iran’s strategic outlook. In the current regional context, issue-specific engagement with Iran is bound to fail. The only diplomatic approach that might succeed is a comprehensive one aimed at a “grand bargain” between the United States and the Islamic Republic.

The authors of the op-ed make a point that I’ve been making here for some time: negotiations with Iran must put everything on the table. The idea that we can get something we really want from Iran, e.g. their cooperation in getting the situation in Iraq under control, while refusing to give the Iranian regime anything that they’re really interested in, e.g. security guarantees for the regime, acceptance of their nuclear development program, and, presumably, at least tacit acceptance of Iran’s growing influence in the region is, well, the kindest thing I can say about it is that it presumes facts not in evidence.

Iran is the regional superpower in the Middle East. Geography, economics, and demographics dictate that. We have interests in the region. They have interests in the region. The best we can hope for is negotiating with them on the basis of equality.


Rick Moran’s take on negotiating with Iran is closely related to but not completely congruent to my own. For example:

I see the efficacy of talking to Iran in a regional context regarding Iraqi security. And reality demands that we recognize that the Iranians have once again become a dominant player in the region – perhaps the most dominant.

is my position in a nutshell. However, I’m not as enthusiastic about the prospects for our giving the regime security guarantees nor am I as sanguine about the likelihood of a “color revolution” in Iran sweeping the mullahocracy away to replace it with a better one (least of all a liberal, democratic one). I think that the mullahocracy has the will, means, and motivation to put down any conceivable opposition.

But on this Rick and I are in total agreement:

Talking is always better than bombing – especially if you can achieve more by talking than you can by bombing. I don’t know if the latter is true as it relates to Iran but I know that it would be unconscionable not to try.

I’ve been trying to locate commentary from the Left Blogosphere on the actual meat of the op-ed but so far all I’ve been able to identify so far are outrage and schadenfreude. This is an important subject and deserves more attention.

Come what may Bush will be president for another two years—either serving out his term or testifying before endless inquiries. I don’t see that continued pounding does a great deal of good.

Still, you’d think the Bush Administration would quit while it’s behind. Lager mentality, I guess.

Update 2

The Carpetbagger Report has a little substantive reaction:

This is hardly a radical, dangerous approach. Indeed, it seems to offer the president a roadmap towards an effective foreign policy, which would certainly be an improvement on the status quo.

Actually, I think it is a somewhat radical departure from more than 25 years of U. S. foreign policy with respect to Iran on the part of both Democratic and Republican presidents.

9 comments… add one
  • I don’t think the Democrats have had much time to adjust to the fact that for the first time in six years at least a few of the people in power may be paying attention to them. And in fairness the Democratic Congress does not yet really exist.

    I find myself largely paralyzed in terms of serious consideration of the future because in order to contemplate same I’d want to believe the White House had some capacity to act intelligently. Otherwise there’s a sense we’re just wasting energy — trying to figure out the rules for a game of chess being played in the dayroom of a psych ward between “Bonaparte” and “Jesus.”

  • It seems to me that there’s no chance whatever that the expression of one’s opinion will get serious attention if the extent of that expression is to pound on the incumbent. It’s the predisposition of every administration to conceal as much as is possible and the predisposition of journalists to expose as much as is possible.

    My own predisposition is to analyze the living daylights out of everything to the best of my ability in the forlorn hope that somebody, somewhere will think about it a little.

    BTW I think that all administrations are 90% on automatic pilot. What with the Pentagon bureaucracy and the State Department bureaucracy and the various intelligence bureaucracies.

  • Dave:

    You’re a very disciplined guy and very dedicated to this blog and to the issues. You do an impressive job of avoiding an emotional reaction. But sometimes I wonder if you project your own openmindedness, fairness and rationality onto people who deserve no such flattering assumptions.

  • PD Shaw Link

    I’ve read that Iranian revolutionary ideology opposes “behind closed doors” talks with the U.S. For example, the Iran-Contra deal was a delegitimizing event within revolutionary circles when it was disclosed. If this is true, the public pressure for talks might actually make them less likely to occur or succeed. From a normal negotiating standpoint, repeated public assertions that the U.S. needs Iranian support gives Iran way too much hand.

  • I’m actually a very emotional and sentimental guy, MT. After ten years of beating the living snot out of anyone who looked cross-eyed at me, my parents, wisely, got me into martial arts training and I got things more under control. More than 30 years of martial arts training helps me maintain some kind of equanimity. I’m still usually seething on the inside.

  • Hi Dave,

    I’ve been trying to locate commentary from the Left Blogosphere on the actual meat of the op-ed but so far all I’ve been able to identify so far are outrage and schadenfreude. This is an important subject and deserves more attention.

    In fairness, you surely have to admit that the Left were advocating talking to Iran, often in some detail, long before the ISG suggested doing so. They still are in other places and in other posts, but the real meat of the NYTimes story is nonsensical redactionand an obsession for secrecy. The original op-ed didn’t really say anything new on the subject other than that the Bush administration have tried to play down and keep silent any whiff that they were negotiating by back channels.

    Regards, C

  • I seethe on the outside.

  • kreiz Link

    MTak, you’ve got way too much of a sense of humor to be much of a seether. Merry Christmas, dude.

  • Aaron Link

    I’d suggest we offer to accept their nuke program since they will get that anyways..might as well be on their good side.

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