Secret US Talks With Iran?
by Leon Hadar
Are US and
Iranian officials holding secret talks to try prevent the diplomatic
tensions between them from deteriorating into a military confrontation?
question being asked now by diplomats and news organizations as
they search through the current heavy "diplomatic fog"
for some signs of what's really happening out there, as opposed
to what both sides are saying publicly, whether it's the 18-page
letter that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had sent to US
President George W Bush, or Washington's most recent statement about
the need for a "regime change" in Tehran.
around the world are considering the possibility that – notwithstanding
the non-friendly rhetoric emanating from both Washington and Tehran
– emissaries from both countries are meeting at some secret location
in Pakistan or Germany reflects probably a wishful thinking, but
this is based on a reading of Cold War history.
of the most critical moves during two major developments that took
place at the height of Cold War – the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962
and the US opening to China in 1973 – involved secret negotiations
between representatives of US administration and officials in Moscow
In fact, most
historians agree that the back-channel communication between US
President John Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev during
the 1962 crisis may have helped prevent a major military confrontation
between the two nuclear superpowers.
crisis was resolved only following a series of secret negotiations
between the two sides that involved agreements that weren't disclosed
until a few years later, including a decision by the US to remove
its nuclear missiles from Turkey, a move that would have been certainly
rejected by the Republicans in Congress.
it would have been unlikely that President Richard Nixon could have
reached any agreement to open talks between the two powers, including
his historic visit to Beijing, through public negotiations with
enough, during a discussion about Mr. Ahmadinejad's letter to Mr.
Bush that took place in a think tank in Washington last week, one
of the participants recalled that during the Cuban Missile Crisis,
Mr. Khrushchev sent Mr. Kennedy a rambling and threatening letter
which Mr. Kennedy decided to ignore, in his response to the Soviet
leader and instead accepted an offer that Mr. Khrushchev made in
policy analyst was proposing in the discussion that Mr. Bush respond
to the Iranian leader's recent letter by ignoring some of the more
controversial elements in it, while accentuating the need for refocused
attention on common interests and values.
in the discussion interpreted Mr. Ahmadinejad's letter from another
perspective: Mr. Ahmadinejad would have no role in US-Iran negotiations,
which would have to involve emissaries speaking for the executive
branch in Tehran that is controlled by Supreme Leader Ayatollah
In fact, that
analyst suggested that the more radical Iranian president was trying
to preempt a more serious negotiating initiative from Tehran, referring
to an article by Hassan Rohani, the Supreme Leader's representative
on the National Security Council, that was published in Time
magazine last week and offered a negotiated solution on the issue
relating to Iran's nuclear program.
Hence the Americans
need to pay less attention to the Iranian president's sermons and
talk directly (and in secret) with Mr. Khamenei's emissaries.
There is no
doubt that Mr. Bush, like Mr. Nixon in 1973 will be facing powerful
forces in Washington, including the neoconservative ideologues in
his administration and the powerful Israel Lobby if and when he
decides to engage the Iranians.
But like the
anti-Communist Mr. Nixon, Mr. Bush would not be accused of "appeasing"
the mullahs in Tehran but will be seen by most Americans as a leader
who was trying to advance US national interests through diplomatic
negotiations and by avoiding a costly war. Indeed, in Realpolitik
terms, it is in both sides' interests to open a dialogue. Mr. Bush
could certainly emerge as a "big winner" out of successful
negotiations with Iran: He will be able to use Iranian influence
among the Shiites in the region to stabilize Iraq (and Afghanistan)
while Tehran's cooperation could help enhance US pressure on Syria
and the Palestine's Hamas government.
will drop and Mr. Bush could emerge as a "man of peace."
That would be great for his "legacy" not to mention to
his Republican party in the coming Congressional elections in November.
At the same time, the Iranians will also win. They would be recognized
by the US and its allies as a regional power, not to mention the
American money and businesses that could start flowing into the
While at this
point, it seems that the Bush administration is offering nothing
by way of diplomatic initiatives, there are signs that its European
allies, led by Germany are pressing Washington to encourage an evolving
Iranian diplomatic initiative.
Hence as it's
becoming clear that the chances for getting the United Nations Security
Council to adopt a resolution to "punish" Iran are close
to zero, and that the costs of a US military attack on Iran are
going to be enormous, the choices that are before Washington now
are either to maintain the dangerous status quo, or to open a dialogue
explains why talks with Iran could happen. If they do, we won't
be hearing about them until they conclude. Watch if a leading US
diplomat "disappears" for a few days and be suspicious
if US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice extends a visit to Turkey
or one of the Central Asian states.
Hadar [send him mail] is
Washington correspondent for the Business
Times of Singapore and the author of Sandstorm:
Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan). Visit
© 2006 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved. Reprinted
with permission of the author.