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Analysts Say U.S. Should Talk With Iran, But Keep Expectations Low

  • Andrew Tully

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad delivers the weekly Friday prayer sermon at Tehran University on September 18

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad delivers the weekly Friday prayer sermon at Tehran University on September 18

WASHINGTON -- When representatives of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany, sit down with Iranian representatives in Turkey in October, they will do so with renewed violence and harsh rhetoric coming from Tehran fresh in their minds.

In the Iranian capital on September 18, as tens of thousands took the opportunity of an annual pro-Palestinian Quds Day rally to show that their opposition to Mahmud Ahmadinejad's contentious June reelection results remains. Iranian officials say they arrested "about 35 people" for allegedly "vandalizing public property." Police beatings of protesters were also reported.

And Ahmadinejad, giving the keynote address to weekly Friday Prayers, rekindled an old flame by fiercely criticizing Israel.

"The pretext for the creation of the Zionist regime is a lie and indeed corrupt -- a lie based on an unacceptable and fantastical claim," Ahmadinejad said.

"The occupation of the Palestinian's land has no connection with the issue of Holocaust."

Two days later, on September 20, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blasted Israel in a sermon marking the Muslim festival of Eid al-Fitr, saying a "Zionist cancer" was gnawing into the lives of Islamic nations.

The comments by Ahmadinejad and Khamenei came just weeks before "5+1 talks," which are expected to take place on October 1. The remarks by Iran's leaders cast a pall on those negotiations, and added to concerns that the presence of an American representative might lend legitimacy to the Iranian government and its recent actions.

Policy Reversal

As a permanent member of the Security Council, Russia will be at the meeting, which is expected to be somewhere in Turkey. Also present will be representatives of the other four members, Britain, China, France, and the United States. Germany also will send an envoy.

But the American presence at the talks represents a direct reversal of the policy of former President George W. Bush, which held that no meeting with Iran could be possible until it scrapped its nuclear program. Some in the West, including Washington, have expressed concerns that Iran would use the program, which Iran insists is for civilian purposes, to develop nuclear weapons.

Ever since he was running for the U.S. presidency, Barack Obama said he'd allow such meetings virtually unconditionally, arguing that negotiations are more likely than aloofness to produce positive results.

Is this shift in Iran policy, as some have argued, a sign of naivete in a U.S. administration that's less than eight months old?

Certainly not, says David Albright, who served as a UN weapons inspector in Iraq during the 1990s and has since founded the Institute for Science and International Security, which works to counter weapons proliferation.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Albright said the U.S. overture to Iran is the only viable course. If Iran takes the negotiations seriously, he says, then everyone wins. If not, he concludes, then the United States can't blame itself for not trying.

"I don't think Obama is naive, and I know many of the people who work on the Iran policy, and I know they're not naive. They understand the difficulty of the situation," Albright said.

"They know that it's very important to stop Iran getting nuclear weapons, and to have a policy in place that can try to do that. I just think that what they've decided -- and I agree with it -- is that part of that policy has to be talking to Iran. And if Iran doesn't want to talk, then we move on to the next set of options."

Albright says he hopes the negotiations are extended, to give all participants opportunities to explore the exact nature and extent of Iran's nuclear program.

Stalling Tactics

James Phillips sees it the other way around. Phillips studies global security issues at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank. And while he doesn't necessarily object to the talks, Phillips said in an interview with RFE/RL that he expects they will be a waste of time.

Worse, Phillips said, the Iranian representative may work to drag out the talks, leading his fellow negotiators empty-handed, eventually.

"I think a [U.S.] representative should be there to listen. I don't think anything's really going to come of that meeting. The Iranians have said, essentially, 'Sure, we'll talk about a wide range of issues,' but they continue to stonewall on the one crucial issue, uranium enrichment," Phillips said.

"What I fear is going to happen is that the Iranians are going to use this as the thin edge of the wedge and talk endlessly about a whole variety of topics, but they won't focus on their enrichment program."

In Phillips' view, a short schedule of negotiations would be far preferable.

A Powerful Message

Whether they're short or long-lasting, the only way to get Iran to change its behavior is to talk, according to Anthony Cordesman, a former intelligence analyst with the U.S. Defense and State departments who now studies global security issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, another Washington think tank.

Cordesman says that not meeting certainly won't change Iran's behavior, and that attending a meeting with a representative of Tehran wouldn't reward Iran's misbehavior. But it would send a powerful message to Iran and the rest of the world about the nature of responsible conduct on the global stage.

"It is almost certainly better for the United States to talk to Iran and be seen as talking to Iran," Cordesman tells RFE/RL.

"It makes it clear to the world we're not pushing for military options prematurely, that we're willing to listen, not simply call for additional sanctions, and it signals to the Iranian people that the United States is willing to talk and listen to Iranian views, even if, as I suspect, the Iranian leadership does absolutely nothing to move things forward."

And what about the legitimacy of the re-election of President Ahmadinejad on June 12? Many in Iran believe the vote count was fixed. Their demonstrations protesting the count was met with a bloody crackdown by an unapologetic government.

Would the United States be lending legitimacy to Iran's government at a time when many Iranians themselves believe Ahmadinejad should be known as a "former president"?

No, says Joe Stork, the deputy director for Middle East affairs at the advocacy group Human Rights Watch in New York.

"The United States meets every day -- has diplomatic meetings -- with governments, representatives of governments, who are in power because of questionable elections, if they have elections at all. So I don't think the issue is whether the United States should meet or not," Stork says.

"I think the issue is: They are meeting, what should be on the agenda? And certainly the human rights record of the government [of Iran], and especially the worsening human rights crisis since the election of June 12, that should definitely be on the agenda."

Stork says the United States took that approach with the Soviet Union for more than 40 years, and at that time Moscow was by far a greater threat than Iran is today.
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