Negotiate with Iran?

Thursday, January 22, 2009

There have been rumors of war and rumors of accommodation. But remarkable enough, for all the sound and fury, the pattern of U.S.-Iranian relations has held for three decades. There has been an uneasy peace between the Pax Americana and the Persian state. And as the Bush stewardship of U.S. foreign policy draws to a close, the American president who designated Iran a charter member of the “axis of evil,” who threatened endlessly that the military option is on the table, departs without having resorted to arms.

With U.S. military campaigns on Iran’s borders in Iraq and Afghanistan, there was never a serious prospect of yet another military engagement in the Muslim world. The Iranian theocrats, a skilled and crafty breed, fully understood Washington’s strategic predicament. No fools, they attended closely to the U.S. presidential campaign; dovishness was in the air, and the Democratic candidate had made an accommodation with Iran a centerpiece of his diplomatic style. Still, afraid of seeming soft on Iran, Barack Obama, traveling in Israel last July, said that he would “take no options off the table” in confronting the Iranian threat. Doubtless, he did not grasp the irony of falling back on an echo of President Bush’s mantra.

Pity the true believers on the right and on the left who took at face value the tough tone of Bush toward Iran. In a stunning turn of events last summer, the Bush administration let it be known that a U.S. interests section in Tehran was in the works. Furthermore, the number three State Department official, Undersecretary of State William Burns, was dispatched to Geneva for talks between the European Union’s foreign policy chief and Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator in the presence of the 5+1 group (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany). In diplomatic-speak, on the table was a “freeze for freeze” under which Iran would halt its uranium-enrichment program and the major powers would refrain from pursuing further sanctions against Tehran. In the way of the bazaar, nothing was conclusive about the Geneva meeting, and the threat of these sanctions would once again be heard. Washington had gone the extra mile, but the Iranians have yet to renounce their nuclear ambitions.

No fools, the Iranians attended closely to the U.S. presidential campaign. Dovishness was in the air.

By all accounts, Iran’s economy is on the ropes. The country has electricity rationing and blackouts; a major oil producer is in the embarrassing position of being one of the biggest importers of gasoline because of a shortage of refineries. The promise by the populist leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of “putting the oil money on the dinner table” has ended in failure.

The radical regime in Tehran has had it both ways since its inception. It has warred against the order of states but has been skilled at stepping back from the brink when necessary. Indeed, the international environment has been merciful toward the Iranian rulers; last summer’s rise in oil prices also came to the regime’s rescue. From Tehran have issued alternating displays of bravado and reasonableness. The Iranians loathe their Arab neighbors but have been keen to present themselves as defenders of the order of the Persian Gulf against the “hegemonism” of the Americans. They have been good at exploiting the inevitable errors committed by a United States often at a loss in the face of Middle Eastern intrigues and complexities.

It is the perfect spoiler role for the Iranians. They can pick and choose the places, and the issues, over which to make their stand. They can occupy three islands that belonged to the United Arab Emirates but still turn Dubai into an offshore base of the Iranian economy. They can foment troubles in Iraq while posing as faithful friends of the new Iraq. It appears that the Bush administration finally arrived at a resigned fatalism about Iran and its ways.

Pity the true believers on the right and on the left who took at face value the tough tone President Bush took toward Iran.

“Our guys, they got taken to the cleaners,” former secretary of state George Shultz once famously said of the arms-for-hostages trade with Iran that nearly wrecked the Reagan administration. We need to recall that cautionary tale if negotiations with Iran emerge as the U.S. policy of choice. All revolutions have their life cycle: a phase of fury and belief, an institutionalization, then a mellowing and acceptance of the world. Alas, nothing on the horizon promises that Iran’s theocrats are ready to settle down to normalcy and routine.