Negotiating With Iran
Yesterday there was a development on the foreign policy front that I found interesting and I thought I might throw it open for discussion here. During a gathering of NATO foreign ministers Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested that Iran be invited to a high-level conference on Afghanistan to be held later this month:
BRUSSELS, March 5 — In the Obama administration’s first specific overture to Iran, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Thursday that the Islamic republic should be invited to a high-level conference on Afghanistan later this month being organized under U.S. auspices.
The meeting would offer Clinton her first face-to-face encounter with her Iranian counterpart, even as the administration confronts Iran over its links to terrorist groups and its nuclear program. Throughout her tour of the Middle East and Europe this week, Clinton has mixed tough talk about Iranian behavior with expressions of hope that areas of cooperation can be found, frequently citing Afghanistan.
I see this as a wholly advantageous move but I’d be happy to hear counter-arguments.
I don’t believe that war with Iran is in U. S. interests: unless you advocate a war with, essentially, exterminatory levels of force, we can’t achieve the objectives we’d like to see and are more than likely to bolster the domestic support for the current regime. We’ve put in place about as much in the way of a sanctions regime against Iran as we’re likely to get without a lot more cooperation from Russia than we’ve seen recently on the subject.
That means that diplomacy is one of the very few remaining tools at hand for resolving any of the many concerns we have about Iran.
The U. S. and Iranian interests in Afghanistan are largely congruent: neither one of us want to see the Taliban return to power there. There’s been quiet cooperation between the United States and Iran with respect to Afghanistan in the recent past:
In the lead-up to the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the United States and Iran were involved in back-channel discussions over ways in which the Iranians could use their influence to facilitate the invasion and help topple the Taliban. After all, Iran — a Persian and Shiite power — is enormously threatened by the empowerment of hard-line Sunni extremists across its eastern frontier, and has actively supported the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance in Afghanistan to counter the Taliban’s rise. Similarly, the Iranians were enormously threatened by Saddam Hussein’s hostile Sunni regime to Iran’s west. So after 9/11, Iran had an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone: It could act as enabler for a U.S. invasion in Afghanistan to remove the Taliban regime, and could use its Shiite allies in Iraq to facilitate the U.S. invasion of Iraq to topple Hussein. Though these U.S.-Iranian back-channel communications over Afghanistan and Iraq were kept quiet, they did end up setting a precedent for cooperation between Washington and Tehran.
Afghanistan expert Elizabeth Rubin has pointed out that, despite Iran’s more recent cooperation with the Taliban, in the big picture the Iranians do not want the Taliban back. Former Afghan diplomat Mazood Aziz has commented:
“Iran is going to be one of the key pillars of our strategy which is going to help resolve this issue. Iran has the potential to be extremely helpful.” But he adds: “Discussions and talks are one thing; how to go about implementing cooperation [with Iran] is another.”
I’ve been skeptical about the Obama Administration’s willingness to pre-concede things that I think would better serve as bargaining chips merely to get parties to come to the bargaining table as I was critical of the Bush Administration on the same grounds. So, for example, I share my friend Mark Safranski’s concern about the speed with which the Obama Administration has offered reconstruction aid to the Palestinians and their willingness to scrap missile defense plans in Eastern Europe.
An invitation to Tehran to participate in a high-level meeting on Afghanistan constitutes an extremely minor concession if any at all and in my view it’s best to begin negotiations with matters on which both parties have substantial agreement.