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DLC | New Dem Dispatch | March 13, 2007
Talking to Tehran

The conversation may be a tad stilted, but the United States and Iran did start talking to each other over the weekend in Baghdad at a Middle East conference on the future of Iraq. That's potentially good news.

For all of Iran's meddling in Iraq, American and Iranian interests in that country point in the same general direction. Both want to see the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government prevail over a mostly Sunni insurgency that includes die-hard Baathists and al Qaeda terrorists. And while Tehran undoubtedly would like to create Hezbollah-like client groups among Iraqi's Shia, it also has to be careful not to provoke a military confrontation with the United States or intervention by neighboring Sunni states. So it's at least conceivable that Washington and Tehran could work out a modus vivendi to avoid confrontation in Iraq.

But let's not get carried away. Iran still poses a major threat to global stability, regional peace, and U.S. interests. Tehran's serial defiance of U.N. mandates to stop developing nuclear weapons capabilities is a major challenge to the world's nonproliferation system. And its strong financial and material support for Hezbollah and Hamas makes it the number one state sponsor of Middle East terrorism.

Iran's intransigence demands a firm response from the international community, not just the United States. Make no mistake: keeping the lid on nuclear proliferation, stopping terrorist attacks on U.N. member states, responding to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's apocalyptic threats to destroy Israel -- these are matters of collective security.

After all, the United States is hardly the only country deeply alarmed by Iran's behavior. Israel has made it clear it cannot for long accept a violently rejectionist regime with nuclear weapons that is deeply involved with its terrorist enemies on its very borders. And Iran's bid for regional dominance, along with its championship of Shi'a aspirations, are deeply troubling to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other Sunni Arab states with sizeable Shi'a minorities.

So while direct U.S. talks with Tehran may prove useful in stabilizing Iraq, the broader pattern of Iranian misconduct demands a more forceful response from the international community, including:

  • Tougher penalties for violating rules against nuclear proliferation. The next step is for the U.N. Security Council to craft stronger economic and political sanctions against the regime, targeted wherever possible at the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which runs Iran's nuclear complex as well as its covert aid to radical groups in the region. This will put Russia and China on the spot, but there's no hope of shoring up the world's crumbling non-proliferation regime if these two powers routinely put their commercial interests over collective efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons.
  • Effective diplomacy backed by the credible threat of force, which the United States must supply as a substitute for what will otherwise be a perpetually on-the-brink-of-war conflict between Israel and Iran, alongside the possibility of growing rivalry between Tehran and Sunni Arab states.
  • Transatlantic efforts to engage Iranian society and stand with Iranian dissidents and reformers. There are already signs of a domestic backlash against Ahmadinijad's outward belligerence and neglect of Iran's mounting economic woes. Iran's youthful population also seems increasingly impatient with the ruling mullahs and expresses strikingly favorable attitudes toward America. We should work with our European allies especially to nurture Iranian aspirations for openness, pluralism, and democracy. This doesn't mean giving opposition groups money -- they don't need it and it would only discredit them. It means offering moral and political support to reformers working for human rights, womens' equality, and greater openness and political pluralism.
  • A serious push to forge a "grand bargain" with Iran. Tehran would have to suspend its fuel enrichment program, submit to intrusive international inspection and end covert military and financial support for terrorists groups in the Middle East. The United States would recognize Iran, normalize diplomatic relations, forswear "regime change," lift political and economic sanctions against the regime, and work with the international community to assure Tehran access to fuel for civilian nuclear power. This would certainly be a deal worth having, but it should be negotiated within an international framework that includes the world's leading powers and the United Nations.

So by all means, the United States should talk to Tehran. But let's keep in mind that our security goals can best be advanced by maintaining a united front with leading powers and world bodies that share our interest in stemming nuclear proliferation and discrediting terrorism. Such diplomatic burden-sharing amplifies the pressure on scofflaw regimes and makes it less likely that the United States will have to resort to the unilateral use of force to ensure our safety. And this approach could also begin to undo the damage to U.S. prestige, influence, and credibility done by the Bush administration's many blunders in Iraq and elsewhere.

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