In the Arena

Iran’s Dangerous Game

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The Republicans running for President have never seemed more ridiculous than when they discuss Iran and gratuitously–and ignorantly–criticize President Obama’s handling of that issue. Obama has patiently increased the economic pressure on Iran and, acting in concert with the Israelis, worked to sabotage the Iranian nuclear program–and now the Supreme Leader’s regime is beginning to get very desperate. How do I know that?

Well, it seems obvious: the Iranians have begun to “negotiate” the North Korean way, through silly threats. They’re threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz, which is the exit point for Iran oil shipments–sort of like saying, “If you don’t stop bothering me, I’ll kill my mother.” They’ve also threatened to execute an Iranian-American visiting his grandparents for being a CIA spy. This follows an equally foolish attempt at “negotiation,” the release of the American hikers who’d been outrageously arrested after straying across the Iranian border. (Releasing people that you have  wrongfully arrested and forced to spend months in prison is not a very credible ‘good will’ gesture.)

These “signals” represent a complete misreading of what it takes to begin a negotiation with the Obama Administration. There’s a reason for that: the Iranians–not just the regime, but even the reform movement–have been isolated from the rest of the world for too long. They have no idea how to play the hand they’ve been dealt because they don’t know very much about the other players at the table.

I learned this in a series of interviews with reform movement leaders in the days before the Iranian election in 2009. It was a moment of optimism. Barack Obama had just given his Cairo speech; his administration was ready to open talks with the Iranians on a broad range of issues, not just the nuclear program. A victory by Mir-Hussein Moussavi in the coming presidential election seemed entirely possible. And so, I asked several of the reform leaders–Mehdi Kharroubi, Mohammed Reza Khatami and Moussavi himself, as well as others–what kind of gestures should both the United States and Iran make to begin the talks.

The response was near-unanimous: Iran didn’t have to make any gestures at all. It was the injured party. The US needed to take the first step–selling Iran spare parts for its aging Boeing commerical fleet would be the best move. The one exception to this line was Moussavi, whom I interviewed the night before the election–it was, I believe, the last interview Moussavi gave a journalist. He said that he thought Obama’s Cairo speech had opened the door for better relations; he didn’t demand a US concession first. He was also the only one of the reformers who said that there could be negotiations about the nuclear program, if there was convincing evidence that efforts at weaponization were taking place.

Mousavi seemed entirely rational to me. (I later interviewed Ahmadinejad, who didn’t seem at all rational.) It was a moment of real hope. And it ended 24 hours later when the election was stolen. The Obama Administration understandably backed away from talks after that. It began its steady, successful campaign of increasing economic pressure on the regime. Through smart, patient diplomacy, it did what no one thought possible–bringing the Russians and Chinese into the sanctions regime. And now, both the Obama Administration and Europe seem ready to impose even tighter sanctions on Iran’s oil industry.

We’re at a dangerous moment right now. The Iranians need to understand in the most precise manner possible what the consequences of their various attempts at saber-rattling will be. They need to understand just exactly what sort of concessions they will have to make to get negotiations started. As David Ignatius writes, there is a need for a direct back-channel between the US and Iran. For our part, we need to be able to directly reassure the Iranians that we had nothing to do with the assassination of the Iranian nuclear scientist–and that our bright line in the current confrontation is violence against Iranian citizens. (One wonders about the content of yesterday’s phone call between President Obama and Bibi Netanyahu.)

Most of all, the Iranians have to understand that there will be no preemptive American concession, no spare parts from Boeing or lifting of any embargoes, until they take the first step. That step is obvious: they need to come into compliance with the IAEA demand for transparency. If they do that, negotiations can begin on a range of matters–including the peaceful nuclear energy program that is Iran’s right under the non-proliferation treaty it signed.