Wednesday, September 16, 2009

U.S.-Iran Negotiations: Once you start you must be nice to them, right?


by Barry Rubin


Before I respond to some points about the U.S. government negotiating with Iran, let me tell a personal story that illustrates the issue.

Some years ago, a colleague wanted to invite me to speak at his think tank in Washington. To his surprise the director of the program absolutely refused to have me as a speaker. He said that I had done something he didn't like but he just couldn't remember what it was.

While this seems a rather flimsy excuse—hey, this is Middle East studies so one always expects the worst—I know exactly what happened. It was in Cairo and I was on a delegation of researchers. A couple of mid-level bureaucrats from the Egyptian Foreign Ministry were giving a briefing which was pure junk, a waste of time to listen to, constituting the official line that everything that has ever happened and was going on in the Middle East was Israel's fault.

My philosophy on these matters is to challenge this kind of performance. There are good reasons for doing so.

First, the way it works in the Arabic-speaking world is that visitors are fed nonsense unless they show that they won't accept it. When that happens, you get a higher level of information and more respect.

Second, it puts the speakers on notice that they have to be more honest and more realistic if they want to get anywhere.

Remember, I was not an official or a journalist representing any governmental or journalistic institution, but a researcher and analyst. We're supposed to question things, right?

In fact, my polite demurrals upset others in the delegation to the point that I was immediately disinvited from continuing with the group to Saudi Arabia and, apparently I was banned from speaking at the think tank of one member of the delegation (not the organizing group).

Now, why am I telling you all this? The reason is this: the person in question has just written an article supporting U.S. negotiations with Iran. He gives three reasons why negotiations are a great idea (he doesn't really engage with the critique very much) but the real problem is revealed by his own behavior.

Briefly the argument is this :

A. By talking with Iran the United States will better keep together the Western coalition for higher sanctions. I have repeatedly asked: What specifically are you talking about? This argument is never accompanied by examples. Russia and China won't switch to supporting higher sanctions as a result of these talks; from everything we've heard, Britain, France, and Germany are ready to raise sanctions now. So who is Washington trying to convince? Unless you hear something specific, disregard this argument, the main theme of the administration.

B. The United States talks to other dictatorships so why not to Iran? Answer: Some dictatorships do not threaten U.S. interests and so once one disregards human rights there are no big barriers to talking. Libya is given as an example, but the United States engaged Libya only after the Libyans abandoned their nuclear program and gave full information to U.S. policymakers. In contrast, Iran has done nothing and will do nothing. Moreover, the Tehran regime has become far worse but is being rewarded now at the moment it is most repressive and extremist.

C. Iran might help the United States on other issues, Afghanistan being the one specifically mentioned. Ok, but what will have to be given up to gain that help, assuming Tehran would do anything? Obviously, the first thing is acceptance of the Iranian nuclear program. The game is not worth the candle as the saying goes or, more bluntly: the United States would be giving up a lot to get very little in return.

Now back to my point. Once talks begin, the tendency is to become uncritical. Can the United States raise sanctions? But that would jeopardize the talks and their collapse would be America's fault. Can U.S. leaders be tough in criticizing Iran (they are hardly doing so even now) about things like repression, anti-Americanism, killing American soldiers in Iraq, sponsoring terrorism, having a wanted terrorist as defense minister, and breaking all their promises regarding their nuclear program?

No, because—as the author of the article I have in mind showed in my case—you punish people who raise tough questions and point out the other side's shortcomings and lies.

Thus, we arrive at a ridiculous but common situation. Iran or Syria, or even Egypt or Saudi Arabia, ridicules U.S. policy and attacks the United States daily—the former through government circles; the latter through state-controlled media—but any American response so upsets the other side that it is forbidden.

After all, it's impolite and they get angry if you criticize them, right?




Barry Rubin

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.


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