Talking to Ahmadinejad

As unlikely as it seems, he is America’s best option for an Iranian negotiating partner.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad 

TEHRAN, Iran—While Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is in New York for the annual U.N. General Assembly, he will no doubt give his usual quota of TV interviews. Angered by what many regard as “dubious assertions” in earlier encounters with the press, experts and activists have tried to improve the quality of discourse this time around. Foreign Policy’s Barbara Slavin advised U.S. reporters on how to avoid getting “played” by the Iranian president, and the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran offered some questions on key issues.

These questions need to be asked and answered for the sake of history and accountability, but the bulk of them refer back to the events of last summer and are ultimately designed to resuscitate interest in the so-called Green Movement, which is not dead but is certainly in a protracted coma.

Asking the Iranian president uncomfortable questions about past events might be great television, but it only provides him with further opportunities to be evasive, a talent he has already displayed on a range of issues from human rights abuses in Iran to the fate of his 2009 election opponents Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubie, who may face trial for the post-election unrest.

Instead, the focus should be on getting Ahmadinejad to commit to something unrelated to Iran’s nuclear program—perhaps something connected with Iraq and Afghanistan, where Iran’s regional strength and its close ties with the governments in both Kabul and Baghdad could help to bring stability where Washington needs it most. It would also force Ahmadinejad to keep a promise.

The message from Washington is hard to make out. Although Jeffrey Goldberg’s article in the Atlantic put the chances of an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities at “better than 50 percent,” former Secretary of State Colin Powell was not convinced. What’s more, no one in Washington is sure that sanctions are working. (I can report that if they were intended to drive up prices on consumer goods, thus making the lives of most Iranians more miserable than they already were, then, yes, they’re working great.)

If anything, talk of war, along with clumsy sanctions, strengthens the shaky ground on which the reactionary elements of the Iranian regime stand.

If sanctions don’t work and no military intervention is made, talks are the only option. That means that Washington will have to overcome its dislike of Ahmadinejad. In the interviews Ahmadinejad has already given in New York, most notably with ABC’s Christiane Amanpour, he maintains that he is ready for talks and that Washington has ignored his invitations.

The Obama administration chose not to open a dialogue with Iran when it first came to office, hoping Iran’s June 2009 election might bring a more palatable negotiating partner to power in Tehran. Now Obama and friends are waiting for another election to pass—November’s congressional midterms—before making their move.

While the Islamic republic’s rule of law and political order are intact, the atmosphere in Tehran is by no means calm, and domestic political hostilities are flaring as never before. During the last week alone, we’ve witnessed the on-again, off-again drama of Sarah Shourd’s release from detention and the battle for who would take credit for it, a massive demonstration by hard-liners and their followers to protest Terry Jones’ aborted Quran burning, and a false report issued by a semi-official Iranian news agency that Iran was holding seven U.S. troops.

Establishing relations with the United States has been the goal of many younger Iranian leaders for the last decade and a half. Anytime it seems close to happening, internal opposition turns against the statesman who seems most likely to achieve what was long considered unimaginable. No one wants a rival faction to be the one that restores relations with the United States.

Here in Tehran, it certainly feels like someone is working overtime to ensure that Iran and the United States don’t make up. Apparently, Ahmadinejad’s domestic foes worry that he is on the verge of warming up the cold war with the United States. The president is increasingly isolated, but that doesn’t mean that there is a great reformer waiting in the wings should he be removed from office. As unlikely as it may seem, right now Ahmadinejad is probably America’s best option for an Iranian negotiating partner.

Ahmadinejad’s international popularity has been waning since before his disputed re-election, and the ranks of his domestic-allies-turned-rivals grow every week. Economic woes, many of which can be traced to mismanagement and corruption during his time in office, are becoming ever more apparent.

To put it mildly, he needs a win.

Meanwhile, a shrinking class of ideologues sees an open compromise with the Great Satan as the end of the system they created. This hostility is one of the remaining pillars on which the Islamic republic stands.

Those hard-liners are probably right; reconciliation would be a significant step in their slow but assured decline. What they can’t seem to admit is that the status quo is untenable. Ultimately, neither time nor reality is on their side.

Several rungs down the diplomatic ladder, where real contact invariably begins, both sides seem ready for discussions. The U.S. State Department is looking for new inroads to Iran, with trust-building in mind. These could come in the form of discussions on more limited regional security issues or even cultural and educational exchanges. The key is that Iran’s nuclear ambitions shouldn’t be the first piece of business that the longtime rivals discuss.

If we could talk with China and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, surely similar openings with Iran are being considered right now. Ahmadinejad’s speech on Thursday should offer some clues as to just how far he is willing to go to open relations. If he makes the right signals, the U.S. administration should be prepared to respond with something more than “We’ll see.”

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