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Iran: As Nuclear Crisis Escalates, Are Direct U.S. Contacts Becoming An Option?

As the Iranian nuclear issue reaches crisis proportions and the country faces international isolation, some voices in Iran are suggesting that it is time to engage directly with the United States. Such prodding is in direct contrast with leading state officials' open hostility toward the United States and hint at possible divisions. Indeed, contact with Washington has always been a sensitive issue in Iranian politics and has been used as a weapon in domestic power struggles. The United States, meanwhile, appears to have elicited a negative response with the adoption of a more active approach toward Iran. The developments reveal the difficulties the two sides will have in establishing direct relations and reaching a modus vivendi.

Tehran has long sought to portray international concern over its nuclear program as a Western effort to retard the country's development. That argument is constantly repeated to domestic audiences and employed for foreign audiences in the context of "Third Worldism" and Islamism; this represents an effort to win support from developing countries and the Islamic world, but it does not seem to have met with much success. When the International Atomic Energy Agency's 35-member governing board voted in early February to report Iran to the UN Security Council, only Cuba, Syria, and Venezuela voted against the resolution, while Algeria, Belarus, Indonesia, Libya, and South Africa abstained.

There are other forms of isolation facing Iran today, as well. Strategically speaking, it is surrounded by the United States. Recognition of such isolation was behind Iran's 1988 acceptance of UN Resolution 598, the Iran-Iraq War cease-fire. More recently, in early 2003, the Iranian Foreign Ministry reportedly proposed direct negotiations with Washington to deal with the subjects that concerned the United States: support for terrorist groups and the alleged nuclear weapons program.

Driven Together?

Now, as Iranian shuttle diplomacy to Moscow, Peking, Brussels, and Vienna fails to resolve the nuclear crisis and the IAEA hardens its stance, voices in Tehran are again suggesting that engagement with Washington might be necessary.

Kazem Jalali, rapporteur of the legislature's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, said in the 2 March "Aftab-i Yazd" that Iran might as well eliminate the intermediaries and negotiate directly with the United States. He explained that both the Europeans and the Russians appear to be acting in line with U.S. desires, and, furthermore, they are taking advantage of the lack of alternatives to improve their negotiating position. He said such talks would be feasible if the United States accepted the principle of Iran using nuclear technology peacefully, but he added that Washington seems to take a completely politicized stance on all issues.

Urumiyeh legislator Javad Jahangirzadeh told "Aftab-i Yazd" that Iran has already made clear the circumstance under which it would talk to the United States, but it is unrealistic to expect that Washington would change its behavior. Jahangirzadeh said he did not foresee a rift between Washington and the Europeans, and the involvement of Moscow and Peking has not helped.

Akbar Etemad, founder of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization and the agency's first chief, announced that the Russian uranium-enrichment proposal will not resolve the Iranian nuclear standoff, Mehr News Agency reported on 24 February. He recommended direct talks with the United States as a solution.

Critical Objectives

There has long been disagreement in government circles regarding relations with the United States. In 1979, there were disagreements pitting revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his Islamist entourage against secular nationalists like Ebrahim Yazdi and Abbas Amir-Entezam. Contacts with Washington led to the downfall of the Provisional Government of Mehdi Bazargan. The Islamists and the student activists who seized the U.S. Embassy in 1979 used evidence of such contacts against their political adversaries.

U.S. contacts continue to provide political ammunition for Iranian political rivalries. Such contacts inevitably start out in secret before coming to light and feeding political vendettas, and anything but the most overt hostility toward Washington can engender a backlash. When then President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami expressed regret over the 1979-80 hostage crisis and invited Americans for cultural and educational exchanges in January 1998, the hard-line media lambasted him. Khatami is unlikely to have made such comments without Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's prior approval, but Khamenei felt compelled to iterate that he still saw the United States as "the enemy of the Islamic Republic."

But what one encounters more frequently these days is criticism of Tehran's diplomatic efforts. Reformist Ahmad Shirzad, a nuclear physics professor who represented Isfahan in the sixth parliament (2000-04), was quoted by the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA) on 3 March as saying that Iran must gain international confidence. "Either they should back down and let the arguments to end, or they will drag this country through a tedious conflict which will definitely bring greater harm," Shirzad said. Iranians knew what they were fighting for in the Iran-Iraq War, Shirzad continued, adding, "What is our objective now?"

While in parliament, in November 2003, Shirzad had criticized the secrecy surrounding the nuclear program, saying it contributed to doubts about its peaceful nature. His colleagues denounced him, the press excoriated him, and he was threatened at rallies in his hometown. He was accused of backing U.S. accusations against Iran.

American Activism

While Iranians consider engagement with the United States, Washington is already taking a more active approach toward one of its main foreign-policy problems. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said during 15 February testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the administration will reach out to the Iranian people directly, according to a fact sheet from the State Department spokesman's office. The 2006 U.S. budget allocates at least $10 million to support political dissidents, labor leaders, and human rights activists, as well as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that are trying to establish networks in Iran.

The White House will seek an additional $75 million to create a round-the-clock Persian-language television service and to improve radio-transmission capabilities; and $5 million will go for communication with Iranians through public diplomacy and the development of independent Persian television and radio. The White House will seek an additional $15 million for work with NGOs and democracy-promotion entities, labor unions, and political groups; and $5 million for outreach through student and visitors programs. The "Financial Times" reported on 3 March that disputes over who will control funding for Persian-language television has already erupted.

The State Department also has created an Office of Iran Affairs. The office is one of several Iran-focused initiatives. The others are Persian-language designated political and economic reporting from Dubai, as well as public diplomacy outreach from there, and similar functions in Baku, Frankfurt, Istanbul, and London. This is part of an overall effort to reestablish a cadre of Persian-speaking foreign-service officers and the State Department's Iran expertise to address the Iran challenge.

Iranian Suspicions

Senior officials' frequent criticism of the United States suggests no plans for engagement. Iranian state radio quoted President Mahmud Ahmadinejad denouncing Washington over its support for Israel during a 3 March seminar in Malaysia titled "International Challenges and the Role of the Islamic World."

The same day in Tehran, substitute Friday Prayer leader and Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani also spoke out against the United States. The bombing of Shi'a mosques in Iraq is part of an effort to weaken the development of Islamic solidarity, Hashemi-Rafsanjani claimed, "because the Muslims feel that the global arrogance, America in particular, intends to create problems for the Muslim by promoting the Greater Middle East plan."

Four days earlier, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had spoken out against the United States. He told a 27 February meeting in Tehran of provincial governors-general that "the clash between the Islamic system's criteria and the demands of hegemonic powers" means that "Iran's Islamic government has constantly been facing a predicted challenge over the past 27 years." Khamenei charged that Washington is behind political discord and factional disputes in Iran, is trying to create ethnic strife in Iraq in order to weaken the country's government, and is responsible for recent the publication in a Danish magazine of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.

Also in late February, Legislator Mohammad Mehdi Mofatteh announced the annual passage of a budget item requesting unspecified funds to foil "American plots," "Jomhuri-yi Islami" reported. The money will be used to support Iranian cases against the United States before international tribunals and to counter a purported U.S. cultural offensive.

Fear Of Isolation?

In light of the long-standing official hostility toward the United States and the underlying suspicion of U.S. motives, the State Department's measures have been poorly received in Iran.

Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Musavi-Jazayeri, the Friday prayer leader in the southwestern city of Ahvaz, said in a 3 March sermon that the United States, United Kingdom, and Israel are behind plots in Iran and bombings in the southwest, provincial television reported. Musavi-Jazayeri said "the allocation of more than $75 million for the so-called revival of democracy in Iran by criminal America means carrying out such terrorist actions," adding that "America must understand that our people will repel their plots through their increased vigilance."

The day after Secretary of State Rice testified, Iranian state radio responded. The broadcaster said U.S. support for Persian-language media is "aimed at airing anti-Iranian propaganda" and "reveals America's failed policies of confrontation and compromise against Iran in the last 26 years." State radio claimed Iranians trust the country's official media while it said U.S. media has failed to convince people of the Iranian government's ineffectiveness. "Although spending American dollars will attract its stooges living abroad to Washington, it will not, however, further America's arrogant policies inside Iran," Tehran radio said.

An editorial in the official state newspaper "Iran" on 19 February claimed that the U.S. budget allocation is a sign of hostility and runs counter to international law. The Iranian public shares this view, "Iran" added. The editorial argued that "all Iranian forums and associations, including political, cultural and academic personalities, almost unanimously believe that the decision about the budget of $75 million is a part of the open and blatant hostility and psychological warfare of America against Iran." As for exile media outlets, the newspaper accused them of "fighting and squabbling against one another since day one of their birth," adding that "each of them considers itself to be more deserving and worthy of the funds than others."

Iran's Nuclear Program

Iran's Nuclear Program

THE COMPLETE PICTURE: RFE/RL's complete coverage of controversy surrounding Iran's nuclear program.


An annotated timeline of Iran's nuclear program.