In the course of his long and stunningly effective run for president, the Democratic Senator Barack Obama has made much play of diplomacy with adversaries as a key plank of his foreign policy platform. He has assigned a starring role to America’s Adversary No. 1: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad:
“Iran, Cuba, Venezuela – these countries are tiny compared to the Soviet Union,” he has told voters. “They don’t pose a serious threat to us the way the Soviet Union posed a threat to us, and yet we were willing to talk to the Soviet Union at the time when they were saying, ‘We’re going to wipe you off the planet’.”
Then on Tuesday, May 20, Obama said: “The threat from Iran is grave. But what I have said is we should not just be willing to talk to our friends, we should engage with our enemies as well. That is what diplomacy is all about.”
The senator is fond of quoting John F. Kennedy‘s aphorism: “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”
How does the Obama thesis go down in Tehran? DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Iranian sources have picked up two indicative comments.
One came from the Iranian president himself, when he said at the beginning of May that Obama’s election as president would be a positive development for Tehran; he added that he did not believe the senator would be allowed to win.
A senior cleric close to Ahmadinejad followed this remark by saying: “If Obama is elected and the talks with Ahmadinejad come about, then we will have captured the White House as well.”
So what will they talk about if Obama captures the White House on November 4?
They will presumably meet at the famously neutral Swiss town of Geneva, a venue favored by US presidents for talks with antagonists.
(On May 9, 1977, President Jimmy Carter met Syrian President Hafez Assad, father of the incumbent; President Bill Clinton faced him too on March 26, 2000. Both meetings were flops. Over the years, Bush administration officials have held secret talks with a number of foreign governments, including Iran. None made any headway on outstanding issues.)
Iranians would smile – and slither out of reach
Our sources expect that, in keeping with standard diplomatic practice, an Obama-Ahmadinejad encounter would be prepared by American and Iranian teams who would draft a joint communique for release at the end of the two presidents’ talks. Those teams, working in panels, would write up the various issues: Iran’s nuclear program; denuclearization of the Persian Gulf and Middle East regions, terrorism, the Persian Gulf, Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and the Palestinians; and Iran-US bilateral relations.
Tehran would be enormously gratified by a US president’s wiliness to discuss a broad range of issues with its leaders, hailing it as a major breakthrough.
But very soon, the American side – president, national security council, state department and any new mechanism which Obama might decide to install in the White House to focus on diplomatic engagement with enemies – would soon be talking at cross purposes with its opposite numbers.
Judging from his rhetoric, the Democratic candidate views directs talks as a means for cutting through the knotty issues dividing the countries as quickly and smoothly as possible. The Iran president and his advisers would, in contrast, seek the opposite objective.
Long experience has taught DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Iran experts that Tehran’s Islamist rulers are no ping-pong players; they have a built-in penchant for procrastination and interminable bargaining. They relish every twist and turn that gives them points against their opposite numbers and, above all, staves off a clear-cut outcome. For the Iranians, diplomacy is a happy occasion for bazaar-style haggling, rather than a tool for solving problems and reaching understandings.
More than once, Europeans diplomats have tried their hand at direct engagement with Iran on its nuclear program; after each round, they raised their hands in defeat. They found themselves caught up in round after round of aimless palaver, while the Iranians took advantage of the idle talk to pursue the very nuclear, strategic and military goals which the talks were meant to abort.
Nuclear watchdog is rebuffed after seven months’ engagement
After being confronted with the accomplished fact of Iran’s dramatic progress in uranium enrichment, even the European Union’s well-tried foreign affairs executive, Javier Solana, threw in the towel.
He, too, would advise Obama – or any other American bent on face-to-face talks – that they would be warmly welcomed by Tehran as long as the dickering was drawn-out and futile; but to expect the Iranians to slither away from any effort to bring it round to brass tacks.
The most recent example occurred this week.
Tuesday, May 20, unnamed diplomats at the International Atomic Energy Agency headquarters in Vienna informed reporters that the nuclear watchdog’s latest effort to probe allegations of Iranian attempts to manufacture nuclear weapons had run aground after more than seven months of messing about.
IAEA director Mohamed ElBaradei will announce the end of his effort in his next report due out soon, although only a month ago, he was still holding on to hopes of success.
This round began last November, when Tehran promised full cooperation with the nuclear watchdog’s inquiry and the submission of all related materials. Seven months later, Iran withdrew its promise – and that was that.
The typical Tehran diplomatic tactic of one step forward, two back had cost the IAEA the best part of a wasted year.
The only known case in 29 years of revolutionary Iran yielding concrete results in direct engagement with an American figure occurred in 1980.
Presidential hopeful Ronald Reagan sent a member of his campaign team, William Casey (later director of the CIA) to negotiate with an Iranian representative in Europe for the release of 52 US hostages captured when radical Iranian students stormed the embassy in November 1979.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who was prepared to do anything to prevent Jimmy Carter’s re-election to the White House, instructed his representatives to accede to the hostages’ release, but delay it until the day of Reagan’s inauguration, as a final snub to the defeated Carter.
The American diplomats and embassy staff were freed after 444 days under siege. The new president held this up as his first foreign policy feat.
Might not the Democratic senator take a leaf out of the Republican president’s book? If he could manage secret negotiations with Iran through a mystery figure and gain tangible results prior to the November election, he would be able to justify his call to engage America’s adversaries in direct diplomacy as a fruitful tactic rather than appeasement.