Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has apparently launched a "dialogue" campaign towards the United States. Earlier this month, Ahmadinejad sent an 18-page letter to President Bush, the first direct communication between Iranian and U.S. heads of state of state in more than 25 years. From the U.S. perspective, the correspondence was wacky, even offensive; Ahmadinejad devoted most of his letter to a familiar litany of complaints against the U.S., mixed in with odd musings on theology. The Bush Administration quickly--and correctly--rejected Ahmadinejad's letter, saying it provided no basis for renewed contacts with Iran.
Apparently undeterred by that rejection, Iranian officials are still pushing for a new dialogue with Washington. Today's Washington Post reports that a number of Iranian officials have conveyed their desire (through intermediaries) for direct talks with the United States. The head of Iran's Supreme National Security Council recently passed that message to Mohammed El-Baradei (head of the International Atomic Energy Agency), for transmission to Secretary of State Condolezza Rice and National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley. Similar requests were conveyed through other channels, including Islamic nations friendly to the U.S. (Indonesia, Kuwait), European countries (France, Britain) and even U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
What's driving this sudden demand for direct talks? Experts interviewed by the Post believe that the recent requests signal a change in Iranian strategy. Readers will note that many of these experts seem to come from sectors of the government (including the CIA) that have consistently opposed Bush Administration policies toward Iran. Not surprisingly, most of these analysts view the Iranian request as genuine, and believe the U.S. should respond to Tehran's overture. The Post even managed to track down Paul Pillar, the former CIA analyst who was forced to retire from the agency last fall, after publicly criticizing the administration. Predictably, Pillar believes engagement is a good idea:
"Much stranger first steps have led to dialogues than this letter. And as weird as the letter may be, if the Iranians want to begin discussions based on the theme of righteousness, that's something we should not be afraid to engage on...We have pretty strong arguments about justice and righteousness of our own, so we should not shy away from that."
The salient question, of course, is why do the Iranians want to talk now, after refusing American gestures for years? The Post believes that Tehran wants to avoid a showdown over its nuclear program, and realizes the window for diplomacy is closing fast. Some experts also believe that the domestic situation has changed in Iran; with "reformers" now out of power, Ahmadinejad's hard-line government (a relative concept in Tehran) can now engage the U.S., claim credit for any successful negotiations and enhance its standing at home.
There may be an element of truth in that, but I'll take a more cynical view. Following the North Korean model, the Iranians have learned that the U.S. is reluctant to engage in military action while diplomatic efforts are underway, and may use any negotiations as a way to "buy time" for its nuclear development efforts. You'll recall that Washington began serious talks with Pyongyang about its nuclear program in the early 1990s; the disastrous "Agreed To" framework was a bonanza for North Korea. In exchange for supposedly giving up its nuclear ambitions, Pyongyang received security guarantees, shipments of oil from the U.S., and South Korean promises to build light-water reactors. The deal finally unraveled after the U.S. discovered that North Korea had violated the agreement by maintaining a clandestine development program, building nuclear weapons. But the agreement "bought" eight precious years for Pyongyang, allowing them to realize their nuclear ambitions.
Tehran has already demonstrated a similar "talk and stall" approach in recent nuclear discussions with Germany, France and Britain, and in negotiations with Moscow to shift uranium enrichment efforts to a Russian facility. Negotiations on these issues have been underway for more than a year, with no signs of progress. But even vague hopes for a diplomatic solution have been enough to sustain the process--and deter military action. By including Washington in the talks, Iran may believe it can buy even more time, forestall possible U.S. military action, and even prevent a potential Israeli military strike.
While millions of ordinary Iranians (and a few officials in the current government) genuinely want a dialogue with the United States, their desires must be measured against Tehran's recent policies toward our government and our citizens. Since the 1979 revolution, successive Iranian regimes have pursued policies that are contrary to U.S. interests, directly endanger American lives, and provide no realistic foundation for dialogue.
And, despite calls for engagement, Ahmadinejad shows no inclination of abandoning those policies. He is continuing to pursue nuclear weapons and delivery systems that threaten the entire Middle East and parts of southern Europe. His government remains the major sponsor of Islamic terrorism, and has provided support for attacks that have killed scores of Israeli citizens and U.S. military personnel in Iraq. That sort of track record suggests that the Iran is not serious about negotiations with the U.S., and probably views potential talks as a little more than a ploy. Until Tehran actually changes its policies, both at home and abroad, the Bush Administration will be well-advised to keep the communications channels closed.