July 5, 2009 in Opinion

Trudy Rubin: Direct talks with Iran off the table

Trudy Rubin
 

Now that Iran has officially confirmed its tainted election outcome, President Barack Obama must reconsider how to deal with the regime.

The big question is whether Obama should junk his plans for direct engagement with Iran’s leaders after their brutal crackdown on civil protest. In fact, the engagement policy must of necessity be put in the deep freeze for the foreseeable future. The events in Iran have left the administration with no other choice.

Before Iran’s “Green” revolt, Obama’s efforts to engage made good sense. Engagement is a euphemism for direct talks without preconditions – something the Bush White House avoided. Direct talks would permit Washington and Tehran, at minimum, to put their demands and red lines on the table without intermediaries, reducing misunderstandings. If talks failed, and Washington had to take tougher measures and rally the support of other nations, Obama could point out that he had tried diplomacy.

But for now, that policy must be put on hold.

Some argue that, despite the regime’s brutality, the importance of the nuclear issue requires us to hold our noses and talk. Iran’s nuclear program is rapidly moving toward the point when it can produce enough enriched fuel and has the technical capacity to make a bomb.

But any U.S. engagement with Iranian leaders at present would legitimize election results that are still disputed, despite official claims. It would imply endorsement of leaders whose legitimacy is now at issue among their own people.

Despite the killings, beatings and arrests, the Green revolt has widened divisions within Iran’s power elite, including the clergy, that have yet to play out in internal battles, whose outcome is unpredictable. What can be said is that the Iranian opposition movement is far from over. “Just as we didn’t want to cause harm by inserting ourselves into a domestic upheaval, we would really demoralize the opposition by pursuing engagement at this point,” said Karim Sadjadpour, a respected Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

And, of course, there’s another basic reason for freezing engagement for the time being: There’s no sign that the Iran regime, with its domestic standing in question, is eager for dialogue with us. Indeed, on the subject of engagement, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, now sound just like their onetime archenemy, George W. Bush: No direct talks without preconditions, they say.

Ahmadinejad has called for Obama to apologize “for interfering in Iran’s affairs” – even though the American president rightly refused to meddle in the election process. Khamenei earlier rebuffed Obama’s overtures by saying he must change America’s policies – such as economic sanctions and support for Israel – before engagement.

Yet the whole point of such engagement is to put both sides’ concerns on the table and discuss them, without prior conditions. Instead, the list of Iranian preconditions is growing. On such a basis, it is impossible to engage.

“They are imitating Condoleezza Rice when she said ‘Iran knows what it needs to do’ for a dialogue,” said Sadjadpour. “Now the Iranians say ‘The United States knows what it needs to do.’ ” He added, “There is no signal whatsoever that they are interested in engagement.”

Some argue that the Iranians’ tough talk is their opening bargaining position. But after the Green revolt, it more likely reflects that the regime can’t negotiate with the “Great Satan” because of unrest at home and a mistaken belief that Mideast history is on their side. Backed by the military might of the Revolutionary Guards, Khamenei and Ahmadinejad appear to need the boogeyman of a Western enemy on whom to blame Iran’s troubles. They also appear overconfident that Obama needs them more than they need him.

This means the gains from any dialogue would be minimal, while the costs would be enormous. Obama is correct to leave open the possibility of engagement should the situation change or the regime show different colors. But for now, it’s a no-go.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.


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