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Iran: Washington's Dilemma -- To Negotiate With Tehran Or Not?

Secretary of State Rice recently cited "serious debate" in the U.S. and Israel about "how to address the threat posed by the Iranian regime" (AFP) One of the most hotly debated issues in the current U.S. presidential campaign has been how to deal with one of the United States' most-discussed foreign-policy challenges. Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, agrees with President George W. Bush that no high-level contact should be made with Iran, for instance, until it suspends its nuclear program. Senator Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee, says conditions for talks with Iran should be less demanding and prefers engagement to narrow the gulf between the two countries. RFE/RL correspondent Andrew F. Tully put the question to two leading foreign-policy analysts.

Wherever McCain and Obama stand on the issue of foreign policy, it won't be relevant until one of them is elected president in November and subsequently takes office in January. Until then, Bush and his secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, will continue to shape U.S. policy. Rice laid out the current administration's approach in a June 3 speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a powerful pro-Israeli lobby in Washington.

"I know that there is a serious debate right now, both in our country and in Israel, about how to address the threat posed by the Iranian regime," Rice said. "This debate, though, should not be about whether we talk to Iran. That's not the real issue. Diplomacy is not a synonym for talking. True diplomacy means structuring a set of incentives and disincentives to produce change in behavior."

Until that behavior is changed, Rice said, Western governments should put more pressure on Iran for flouting three UN Security Council resolutions that demanded it suspend its uranium-enrichment program.

That approach simply doesn't make sense to Ted Galen Carpenter, the vice president for defense and foreign-policy studies at the Cato Institute, a private policy-research center in Washington. Carpenter says that, unlike many other countries, the United States has a history of avoiding talks with some adversaries. He says Washington tends to act like a schoolchild who stubbornly avoids contact with anyone he doesn't like.

"We've tried it with Cuba for four and a half decades, we tried it with Vietnam for two decades after the end of the Vietnam War, we did it with China from 1949 to '72, [and] we do it today with Iran and other countries," Carpenter says. "And the strategy generally doesn't work. Engagement works better. It's not perfect, it doesn't always succeed, but it's -- in most cases -- preferable to a strategy of surly isolation."

In fact, Carpenter says, the Bush administration has been inconsistent in its stated policy of refusing to talk with governments it considers "rogue." He points to U.S. involvement in the six-party talks with North Korea, along with China, Japan, North Korea, and Russia.

Carpenter says it's simply wrong to say that holding formal talks with a country like Iran or Syria somehow appeases its government, as Bush argued in his speech before Israel's parliament on May 15.

"What bothered me the most about Bush's speech at the Knesset was the notion that merely talking to an adversary is appeasement," Carpenter says. "Appeasement, to me, requires the making of both cowardly and unwise concessions, not substantive concessions, not merely opening a dialogue with an adversary."

Michael O'Hanlon, who studies U.S. national security policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, takes a different view.

O'Hanlon says Rice's definition of diplomacy -- "structuring a set of incentives and disincentives to produce change in behavior" -- is too narrow. He says it should ideally be "a conversation" in which both sides have an opportunity to understand each other.

But in the case of Iran, O'Hanlon insists that Rice is correct.

"I don't think, for example, that Iran would feel better about its relationship with the United States if we would somehow forswear [Bush's] preemption doctrine or otherwise reassure them," O'Hanlon says. "I think that they are trying to maximize their own position vis-a-vis ours. They do see us as competitors. They believe they're doing pretty well in the competition. And therefore in the end, with Iran it's probably mostly right that what you're doing is [creating] incentives and disincentives for shaping their behavior."

O'Hanlon says the United States has in fact had many behind-the-scenes contacts with Iran about its involvement in the violence in Iraq. He says from what he's heard, Tehran consistently denies any involvement in its neighbor’s affairs.

O'Hanlon also says that Iranian negotiators defy logic by denying facts that "they should recognize or admit." As a result, he says, it's impossible to hold a candid, earnest conversation with Iranian negotiators under the country's current leadership.

Yet O'Hanlon says that if he were in Rice's place, he'd probably hold formal talks with Iran's leadership, if only to let them show the world that they themselves weren't negotiating in good faith.

"I would favor what I call 'hawkish engagement' [or] 'hawkish diplomacy' -- which means expecting the talks to fail -- but having them anyway, partly in the hope that I'm wrong, partly in the belief that by showing the world our good intent we will get more support, and partly by putting pressure on the Iranians to realize they can't keep trying to fool everyone all the time with the success they've sometimes had in the past," O'Hanlon says. "I think negotiations make sense, but the idea that somehow negotiations are a policy in and of themselves is not correct and should be avoided."

O'Hanlon says such negotiations might even have an effect on the Iranian people, who will vote for a new president next year.

If Iranian voters recognized that the United States was spurned when it tried to improve relations with their government, he says, they might choose new leaders who are more receptive to honest diplomacy.

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.