Talkng to Ahmadinejad
After Iranian President sent President Bush an 18 page letter which can only be described as rambling, Matthew Yglesias wrote that "it'd be dumb to just take the Iranian government at its word, but there's no denying that they're trying to open a discussion and, frankly, it would be insane of us not to give this path a shot. ... Refusing -- repeatedly -- to explore this opportunity just suggests to me a positive desire for war. There's no downside whatsoever to talking unless your real fear is that talks might be successful and eliminate the chance for a good international crisis."
Mark Steyn on the other hand, believes that real harm can come from negotiating with someone who may have no intention of doing a deal at all. In an interview with Hugh Hewitt, Steyn said:
HH: Now in today's AP bulletin from Indonesia, Ahmadinejead is again calling Israel, "a tyrannical regime that will one day be destroyed," and going on about it. But meanwhile, over at Politecompany, Council On Foreign Affairs company, Greg Djerejian, who writes at the Belgravia Dispatch, I quote, "at some point, I'm hard pressed to see how we avoid talking with the Iranians, period. Bottom line, the Iranians have become players. And chiming on about just bombing them into submission isn't going to get us anywhere, save maybe on the Hugh Hewitt Show." I think he's talking specifically about you, Mark Steyn, earlier in that paragraph. What do you think about Polite Company refusing...the Council On Foreign Affairs refusing to deal with this problem?
MS: Well, I do think you risk the danger simply by agreeing to enter into discussions with someone like that. You do risk treading down the Neville Chamberlain path, that I have here a piece of paper signed by the president of Iran. He's a man we can do business with, and all the rest of it. And I don't think that's true. I think the lesson we learn from these things is that Iran treats with contempt all the forms of international decorum, and always has done. And that includes whether it's respecting people's embassies, which obviously it didn't do the United States, to respecting territorial jurisdiction, which it's never done. And so I think the thing about Iran is that there is really no point to talking to them. No one has talked to them more than the Europeans over the last three years. They've been shuffling to Tehran back and forth doing the...every time they mention the Prophet Mohammed, doing the peace be upon him thing, as Jack Straw, the former British Foreign Secretary does like a sort of nervous tick five times a sentence when he's there. Even the Americans, the Americans in the period after September 11th, talked to the Iranians more than they had since the fall of the Shah. And the administration in Washington thought it had reached a kind of modus vivendi with Tehran. It turns out not to be the case. We've been talking to them for years. The idea that we need to start talking to them is ludicrous. And he should know better. He's a smart guy, the Belgravia Dispatch.
Yglesias seem to make the unassailable point that since talk precludes nothing the US and Iran can always resort to fighting if they can't do a deal; so why not talk? But Mark Steyn is apparently worried that talk, rather than precluding nothing, will in fact preclude other forms of action by reposing faith in a dealmaking process without the prospect of a deal.
Even the Americans, the Americans in the period after September 11th, talked to the Iranians more than they had since the fall of the Shah. And the administration in Washington thought it had reached a kind of modus vivendi with Tehran. It turns out not to be the case. We've been talking to them for years. The idea that we need to start talking to them is ludicrous.
To a certain extent neither argument meets the other head on. It's hard to assert that the United States and Iran haven't been talking. They have been. Over the last three years both countries been hard at work exchanging a multitude of signals through the UN or the EU-3 -- via covert warfare on both sides of the Iraq-Iran border -- and probably through a variety of backchannels. Both States have been asserting their claims and demonstrating their resolve through these means. By now both sides have a pretty fair idea what the other wants and some sense as to how far each is willing and able to go to achieve it. So it's not true that the Bush administration has been operating under emissions control, neither sending or receiving signals as it steers towards Iran. But on the other hand, it's not entirely true that one risks "danger simply by agreeing to enter into discussions with someone like that", given that some discussion is already taking place through the various channels already mentioned. What is true is that there is a potential risk in subordinating all the other extant forms of interaction to a direct exchange between the two Presidents.
This subordination, or at least complementation, is hinted at by the Belgravia Dispatch when it argues that:
Getting real means talking with the Iranians. To prepare for such discussions, we need to approach the Euro-3. We need to say, listen: we'll open up a U.S.-Iranian bilateral track, in tandem with the multilateral one, but if it fails, you (yes even Dominique de Villepin's government and such camembert-munching appeasers) have to promise you'll vote for sanctions if we fail in extracting concessions from the Iranians after pursuing a good faith dialogue with them. We need to have multi-party talks, but with bilateral break-outs. The multilateral talks should continue to focus on the nuclear issue. The bilaterals should focus on key issues of mutual U.S.-Iranian concern ... And by not trying utopically for some "Grand Bargain", on the one hand, or merely piece-meal progress on too strictly demarcated issues on the other (just Zalmay and Iraq, say), we offer room and a venue for realistic forward movement on a package of issues that are more often than not inter-linked in practice and so better addressed together.
The addition of a bilateral track means re-weighing the other tracks in relation to it. A negotiation strategy not only means adding more bandwidth but far importantly it means shaping the bandwidth. Certain channels are going to be assigned particular tasks; some routes are going to be emphasized while others are going to be comparatively denigrated. Not only will bilateral negotiations affect the EU-3 track it will also affect other forms of signaling because one of the first things negotiators typically demand are what are called "confidence building measures" which is a euphemism for "call off your dogs" while we talk. But by that time the bilateral negotiations may have become a desirable political quantity in themselves and the threat to call them off a sanction in itself.
Does any of this mean that 'under no circumstances should we hold bilateral talks' with the Iranians? No. But neither does it follow that under all circumstances should the US seek bilateral negotiations with Teheran. From the vantage of the US the correct move will depend entirely on the empirical effect of bilateral negotiations upon the total package of interaction with Teheran. Part of the problem facing outsiders looking in is that we don't know what the total package of interaction is. Some of it is open to public view but the covert and backchannel operations are shrouded in secrecy. To what extent these should be made subordinate or be complemented by bilateral negotiations is unclear. Without that knowledge, one can only guess whether it is propitious to open bilateral negotiations with Teheran or not.
However, if one takes the Ahmadinejad letter as an Iranian effort to "reach out" to the United States the natural question must be what motivated them to do so. Is it possible that they are "feeling the heat" and are eager to strike a deal. If so, then does that not argue against subsuming the very channels which have successfully compelled Teheran into crying "Uncle" into the framework of bilateral negotiations? Or is it the case that America has been defeated in the Middle East, especially in Iraq; that in consequences it is time to talk to Iran to get what terms one can before Teheran extracts its pound of flesh from a floundering and desperate George Bush? Or is it something in between? There is no answer based on theory. There is only a judgment based on an appreciation of the state of play. And while everyone has his private scorecard many of the cards are still face down.