Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Talking to Iran: don't want to stink up the place

I heard the news with surprise on the radio: the Bush administration has announced that the US will participate in talks with Iran and Syria.

That seemed awfully odd to me, given the administration's previous declarations that this will not happen. And, although politicians are notorious for changing their minds depending on which way the wind is blowing--and although not all changes of mind are bad ones, by any means--this one made me very suspicious, indeed (see this for my discussion on talking with Iran).

The money quote from that post is here:

If by "talk" you mean threats with a big stick to back them up, I'm all for talking. But...[t]he talks that are proposed [at the time the post was written] are to elicit Iran's cooperation in covering a planned retreat from Iraq, to "stabilize" the country. The only stabilization Iran is interested in there is stabilization under Iran's thumb, and they will say anything and do anything to get it. Thus talks are inherently duplicitous and counterproductive.

So, if the present proposed talks contain two elements: (1) a strategically viable "big stick" threat from the US; and (2) Iran's awareness that the talks are not a cover for a planned precipitous US retreat from Iraq--then I think talking to Iran and Syria would not be a particularly dangerous thing to do. Although I still doubt the productivity of any such talks, they would no longer be especially risky, as long as we remain realistic about their chances of success, and continue to pressure Iran in other ways.

Whether these two needed elements are fully in place right now, I'm not sure. The second one appears to be--albeit weakly, albeit temporarily--since the antiwar resolution advocates in Congress don't seem to be winning out (yet). But there's no pretense of a united front on that score, either, and Iran knows that.

As for the first element, take a look at this. It's a very promising development I first heard about at a lecture I attended a couple of months ago: a new form of economic sanctions (under the umbrella of that favorite bete noir of liberals and the Left, the Patriot Act, which appears to be doing some good, after all). The economic effects of these sanctions have already been felt by both Iran and North Korea. Hmmm. Previously (as the article points out), sanctions have been relatively feeble and toothless, but these seem to have a bit of a bite.


Another point is that the proposed talks are not just between the US, Iran, and Syria. They involve twenty key countries in the region including Iran and Syria. The goal is, apparently, to improve Iraq's relations in the area as a whole, and the US is attending in deference to Iraq's need to establish regional credibility, not necessarily to do a whole lot of negotiating with Iran and Syria.

In a delicate metaphor, Jon Alterman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington says:

The [Bush] administration is still skeptical, but they were not going to be the skunk at the garden party and say we are not going at all.

So, let's retain our skepticism, have some tea and some cucumber sandwiches, and talk.

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