BERKELEY, California - Republican presidential aspirant John McCain's recent
criticism of Democratic frontrunner Barack Obama's foreign policy platform
exposes contradictions with the George W Bush administration's own actions.
Bush and McCain have dismissed Obama's willingness to talk directly with US
adversaries like Iran as "negotiation with terrorists and radicals", even
though the Bush administration itself has repeatedly talked with "enemies" such
as Libya, North Korea and even Iran on various occasions throughout Bush's
Talking to adversaries is not unprecedented in US foreign policy. The US has
successfully resolved tough situations before through
this tactic, most notably during the Cold War, and Obama seems to believe it
can work again.
In the case of Iran, however, the US is reluctant. During the past two years,
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has offered to hold direct talks with the
Iranian government only on the precondition that Iran halts its
uranium-enrichment program. Iran's government cannot do this, for it would
diminish its stature in the eyes of the Iranian people.
But critics of the administration's stance say there are many reasons why the
US should consider direct talks with Tehran. Iran has helped the US pursue its
foreign policy aims in the past. It was Iran that paved the way for the US to
overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan and help President Hamid Karzai's
government reconstruct the country in 2002. Iran also did not oppose the US
invasion of Iraq in 2003.
During the past year, Iranians have participated in three rounds of talks with
the US ambassador in Baghdad. They are currently preparing for another round of
talks in the coming months to discuss further discuss security issues in Iraq.
It appears the major obstacle to initiating direct talks with Iran is the
uneasiness brought on by talking to President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, whose
controversial remarks about Israel and the Holocaust have given him an infamous
international reputation. But Ahmadinejad is not the man with whom the US
In the complicated Iranian political system, it is Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali
Khamenei who makes major foreign policy decisions. Khamenei allowed Iranian
diplomats to talk with Washington about ousting the governments of Afghanistan
and Iraq. Ahmadinejad's power in Iran's politics has been over-exaggerated in
the West, particularly in the US.
In recent months, Ahmadinejad has been criticized by major Iranian political
figures over his economic policies, which have pushed the inflation rate to an
unprecedented 25%. In Iran's recent parliamentary elections, Ahmadinejad's
radical allies failed to gain the majority in Majlis (parliament) before the
Ali Larijani, Iran's former national security secretary and head of the nuclear
negotiating team with the European Union, who was chosen as the speaker of
Iran's parliament last week, is a moderate politician with close ties to
Larijani left his previous post to protest Ahmadinejad's defiance over the
nuclear program. He now is shaping up to become a major thorn in Ahmadinejad's
side ahead of next year's presidential elections, undermining Ahmadinejad's
populist image and giving his rivals ammunition to blame him for the country's
The question now is why should Iran talk to the US when it is enjoying growing
regional influence and benefiting from the high price of oil? To answer this
question one needs to understand Iranian political psychology.
Under the shah, prior to the 1979 Islamic revolution, Iran tried to keep its
balance, staying close to the US and Israel and distancing itself from Arab
countries that had historically been its rivals. After the revolution and in
the aftermath of the hostage crisis involving seized Americans, Iranian leaders
reversed this policy. They drifted away from the US and Western countries and
tried to engage with Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia.
Now, the Arab countries, fearful of Iran's increasing power, have sided with
the US and are threatening Iran's national security by buying billions of
dollars of weapons to deter Tehran's hegemony in the region.
Many Arab analysts believe that despite Tehran's harsh rhetoric toward Israel,
Iran's nuclear strategy is targeted primarily at other Arab countries. Recent
remarks by Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal that "Iran is backing what
happened in Lebanon, a coup ... and it will affect its relations with all Arab
countries, even the Islamic ones", shows the depth of this increasing animosity
between Iran and its Arab neighbors.
Between the US and Arab countries, Iran has lost on both sides. While Iran's
historical struggle with Arab countries is too deep to be healed in a short
time, Iranian leaders know that to deter potential Arab aggression, negotiation
with the US is necessary.
Additionally, Iran's fragile economy, which suffers from the fifth-highest
inflation rate in the world, is the result of a series of sanctions and
marginalization by the global economy. This has negated the benefits of rising
oil prices. For a country in which 69% of the population is under 30, and 20%
of the urban population is unemployed, negotiation with the US is not a matter
of ideology but of bread and butter.
While Washington appears to be leaning toward negotiations with Iran, nobody
wants to give Ahmadinejad a free ticket to use for his second term. In the long
run, whether Ahmadinejad is re-elected or not, the US should be talking to
Khamenei. The rapid raise of oil prices, the inefficiency of US-led sanctions
against Iran's economy, and the improbability of another military attack by the
US against Iran indicate that the Bush administration's policies toward Tehran
Given this situation, the idea of genuine negotiations with Iran - in other
words negotiations with no preconditions - is becoming more and more acceptable
Omid Memarian is a peace fellow at the Graduate School of Journalism at
the University of California, Berkeley. He has won several awards, including
Human Rights Watch's highest honor in 2005, the Human Rights Defender Award.
His blog can be read at http://omidmemarian.blogspot.com.