EARLIER THIS month, Vice President Dick Cheney threatened Iran from the deck of an aircraft carrier. Two days later, the U.S. announced direct talks with Iran on Iraq. The Bush administration wants to have it both ways, using threats as leverage to win diplomatic concessions in talks. But for negotiation with Tehran to succeed, threats won't work. That's because threats will only strengthen the hand of a powerful Iranian faction that is opposed to talks.
Washington needs to digest the realities of Iranian domestic politics. There are no pro-Americans in the Iranian government, but there are three factions of conservatives whose differing views matter.
First are the hard-line conservatives headed by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a faction that includes the head of the Revolutionary Guard, Yahya Rahim Safavi; the head of the Basij paramilitary, Mohammad Hejazi, and the radical clergy. These powerful people want neither talks with the U.S. nor anything to do with a rapprochement. Veterans of the war with Iraq, these men ardently distrust the U.S. and could undermine talks or use them to thwart U.S. interests. And so they are likely to use U.S. military threats or the specter of additional sanctions to claim that Washington is not serious about diplomacy and that its gestures of flexibility are aimed more at Europe than Iran.
The second and even more influential faction is the traditional conservatives, headed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who is a balancer among groups. This group has the final say on key issues, certainly including talks with the U.S. It is leery but now supportive of talks; that stance could shift if Washington slings more threats at Tehran.
Finally, there are the pragmatic conservatives, headed by former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, Hassan Rohani and the recently arrested Hossein Mousavian. They support talks with the U.S., call for a less-aggressive nuclear and foreign policy and stress the importance of integration in the global economy and attracting foreign investments. This group is not part of the policymaking establishment, yet individuals such as Rafsanjani retain influence. Official talk from Washington about military action undermines this faction, the only one that is committed to giving diplomacy a chance.
In the best of circumstances, any diplomatic engagement will stand on a shaky foundation. Direct bilateral talks have a long history of near misses, most recently when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki attended the same conference on Iraq last month. The U.S. and Iran have a 28-year history of vitriol; direct talks will be controversial in both countries.
Along with a cessation of threats, Washington should create an environment conducive to diplomacy. Rice's recent decision to attend an Iranian art exhibition in Washington was a step in the right direction. The National Basketball Assn. is about to crown a new champion; why not encourage NBA exchanges with basketball-crazy Iran. This month, a group of Iranian lawmakers began to form a U.S.-Iranian friendship committee; legislative exchanges should be initiated.
Some will argue that one-track diplomacy, without threats, will signal U.S. weakness. The argument is without merit. Tehran knows well that President Bush has said that all options, including military, are on the table. And a period without chest-thumping in no way prevents a return to coercive diplomacy later if necessary.
Even threat-free talks may not work. On Iraq, the U.S. will want Iran to stop arming Shiite militias and to encourage Shiite leaders Abdelaziz Hakim and Muqtada Sadr toward conciliation. Iran may not cooperate. The U.S. will surely demand a suspension of uranium enrichment, but nobody in Tehran will agree to that.
Still, there's no time to waste. Iran's nuclear program is progressing quickly. Iraq is taking a huge toll on the U.S. Israel's patience with Tehran's nuclear and diplomatic advances is growing thin. But U.S. threats empower exactly those who challenge our vital interests. So while threat-free diplomacy is a long shot, it's our last, best chance, and we must try it.