WASHINGTON: With battle lines drawn in the confrontation with Iran, the United States desperately needs an opening, a line of communication.
Everyone seems to agree that the crisis over Iran’s nuclear ambitions is fed at least in part by a lack of understanding between the United States and the Islamic Republic, two states which have not had diplomatic relations for decades. Surprisingly there is an existing way for them to talk but it is not being used. It is a channel where contacts can take place under-the-radar, where signals can be passed discreetly. That channel is US diplomats in international organizations such as the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency, where envoys who rub shoulders with their Iranian counterparts in various conferences and often serve on the same committees are not now engaging with the Iranians. US diplomats are instructed not to reach out, or to be open, to their Iranian counterparts. This is a wasted opportunity.
Diplomacy is at a standstill and the risk of a military conflict grows. U.S. and other Western officials criticize the Iranians for not talking seriously with the six major powers, the so-called P5 Plus 1, who are the ones negotiating with Tehran. Meanwhile, Track 2, or non-governmental, diplomacy seems to have run dry. Signals are getting dropped, crossed or just not being emitted by the think tank types and former high-level officials active in this kind of work. It has never been more urgent to find a way of talking that is exploratory rather than formal, safe and face-saving rather than embarrassing if exposed to public scrutiny. Isn’t this exactly what diplomats are posted to do?
When United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice delivered a stern warning last October to Iranian Ambassador Mohamed Khazaee over the alleged Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington, she did only that, according to reports. She did not say, maybe we could meet again discreetly, or now that I have delivered my message, I would like to hear your suggestions about how we could reduce tension, or something like that. In short, she did not open the door for Iran to begin to explore how it might want to get out of this crisis.
This is not to say that such talks are likely to bear fruit. An administration official told me the Iranian system “is multi-layered and complex and the friends of talks don’t appear to be winning at the moment.” A source close to the administration told me that letting US diplomats talk to their Iranian counterparts could lead to mixed messages: “They have been the ones not willing to speak to us.” Being open to talks with ambassadors would lead to a situation, this source said, “where you had a lot of chance to have discussion with different factions. It wouldn’t make it more likely you would have an authoritative discussion.”
The Iranians, said the source, know how to get in touch with the United States if they want to talk. Yet a senior Iranian diplomat reacted with surprise and interest when asked about whether he would welcome feelers from the U.S. side and a chance for such tentative discussions. The United States, he said, has not tried this.
The medium is at this point surely much more than the message. This is especially so since one theory is that Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khameini is convinced the United States seeks to topple him. In Khameini’s thinking, Washington is not open to anything but regime change in Iran. According to this theory, even when Khameini begrudgingly lets his officials negotiate with the United States and its allies, he tells them that nothing will come of it, that in the end Washington will sabotage any deal. All the more important then to ensure the secret channel of communication be a government one, so that it is clear the US government is engaged. And both sides need an open channel to build confidence and to be available if and when Khameini decides he is ready to trust moves towards a deal. The channel would also allow for the sort of haggling, the back-and-forth to which the Iranians are culturally inclined. This kind of bazaar trading can be deadly, because it is so time-consuming, in major, set-piece diplomatic encounters. It would work better in a pre-Sherpa, preparatory setting which ambassadorial contacts would represent.
The United States has nothing to lose by attempting this. The talks would be unofficial and non-binding. If the Iranians decided to burn their bridges by exposing or betraying this level of contact, well, at least Washington would have tried. And the US could then tell the world, we did our best but they just wouldn’t listen. It is folly not to try, particularly since doing so does not diminish the pressure against Iran on the military, economic and political fronts.
Indeed, if the pressure is designed to get the Iranians to talk, then the United States should be building the negotiating front as carefully and in as committed, and if necessary a covert, a fashion as it is the other fronts. Building confidence and dialogue do not happen overnight, or abruptly when a situation has deteriorated beyond the comfort level of one of the parties — which is a pretty good description of the level to which Washington is trying to force the Iranians. A negotiated settlement is still the preferred option. Dennis Ross, a former senior advisor to US President Barack Obama, wrote in the New York Times on Tuesday that, “with Iran reeling from sanctions, the proper environment now exists for diplomacy to work. The next few months will determine whether it succeeds.”
Ambassador Rice at the United Nations in New York, or the US ambassador at the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, are two diplomats who deal with the Iranian dossier daily, who have Iranian counterparts who know the nuts-and-bolts of the issues, as well as the larger policy parameters. They also are in places where it would be easy to have meetings hidden from the media. The United States should be aggressively pursuing such diplomacy.
Michael Adler is a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, writing a book on diplomacy in the Iranian nuclear crisis. Michael covered this crisis extensively for five years while in Vienna, where he reported on the International Atomic Energy Agency, which has its headquarters in the Austrian capital.