March 25, 2009

All I Am Saying…Is Give Peace (with Iran) a Chance

All I am saying is give peace a chance. Yes, very John Lennon of me, I know. And I know these words are probably rubbing some of you anti-hippies the wrong way. But can you say that I’m wrong? As much as you might hate that phrase, won’t you concede that I’m onto something? Even if you don’t think that peace has a great shot of succeeding, won’t you agree that it doesn’t hurt to at least give it a chance?

President Obama claims that he’s willing to give peace a chance with Iran. As he said in a recent video to Iran’s leaders and citizens:

We have serious differences that have grown over time. My administration is now committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us, and to pursuing constructive ties among the United States, Iran and the international community. This process will not be advanced by threats. We seek instead engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect.
Now only time will tell us if Obama really is determined to achieve peace with Iran. But his stated commitment to diplomacy is certainly a good thing. In my mind anyway. Michael Ledeen of the National Review disagrees.

In a recent column, Ledeen claims that talking to Iran would be a complete waste of time. In fact, he goes so far as to liken Iran’s mullahs to the villain in the movie Goldfinger:
In the middle of the movie James Bond is spread-eagled on a sheet of gold, and there’s a laser beam cutting through it, about to slice him in half. Goldfinger is standing on a little balcony. Bond looks up and asks, “Do you expect me to talk?”

Goldfinger replies, “No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die.”

Just as the mullahs do.

As evidence for his claim, Ledeen cites a recent BBC documentary which tells about Condoleeza Rice’s 2006 attempt to normalize relations with Iran. As the documentary recounts, Rice devised a plan in which the US would end sanctions and normalize relations with Iran, and in return Iran would stop its nuclear enrichment program. She received Bush’s approval and planned on formalizing the deal at the UN General Assembly in September.

But to Rice’s chagrin, the Iranians backed out. Though the Americans were expecting moderate Iranian official Ali Larijani to come to New York, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad showed up instead. Once there, Ledeen writes, Ahmadinejad “delivered his usual blistering denunciation of the United States, along with a visionary invocation of the imminent arrival of the 12th Imam,” and an agreement was never reached.

While Ledeen’s retelling of the story is accurate enough, he only tells half the story. The other half, which is also told in the BBC documentary, tells of three different times between 2001 and 2003 in which the Iranians attempted to improve relations with the US but were soundly rebuffed.

The first Iranian attempt occurred after 9/11 when a member of Iran’s UN delegation sent a message to the US government. According to Hillary Mann, head of the State Department’s Iran Section, “He said that Iran was prepared to work unconditionally with the United States in the war on terror, that if they could work with us on this issue it had the potential to fundamentally transform US-Iranian relations.” The State Department favored starting up a dialogue with Iran. But according to Richard Haass, head of policy planning for the State Department, “We couldn’t get support form the NSC, from the Pentagon, from the Vice President’s office. And in every case we ran up against this belief in regime change.” A few months later, President Bush further damaged US-Iranian relations by delivering his famous “axis of evil” speech.

But Iran wasn’t ready to give up. As the US prepared to invade Iraq, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami offered to “provide America with intelligence and advice to help get rid of Saddam Hussein.” British Foreign Minister Secretary Jack Straw conveyed the offer to the US. Again, the Bush administration said it wasn’t interested.

After the invasion, the Iranians sent another message to the US, this one through a Swiss diplomat. In the message, Iran proposed a roadmap for the normalization of relations between the two countries and indicated that all issues were on the table. After reading the memo, Mann believed it was “incredibly significant and groundbreaking” and felt the US needed to “call them on it” and sit down and talk. Yet the Bush administration not only refused to talk to the Iranians but even reprimanded the Swiss diplomat for conveying the message.

So that’s the whole story. I’d be the last one to call the Iranians a gentle, peace-loving nation. But, contrary to Ledeen, I don’t see any historical basis for concluding that talks with Iran would be a waste of time. Although there are certainly people in Iran who reject diplomacy with the US (just as there are people in the US who reject diplomacy with Iran)—there are also, as the BBC documentary makes clear, Iranians who desperately want better relations with us.

So what am I saying? That’s right—give peace a chance. And I don’t say this because I’m some dreamy-eyed idealist. (No offense, John Lennon.) Rather, I say it because I’m a realist who believes that the US has the moral and legal obligation to exhaust all peaceful solutions before it even begins thinking about “other options.”

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