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Going face to face

Article by Alex Bigham

September 15, 2006

1st June 2006

In the battle for hearts and minds between Washington and Iran, the US has played a tactical trump card in its offer to resume negotiations with the Islamic republic.

Breaking 27 years of silence is rightly seen as a major shift in American policy. It ends the anomaly where the only channel the US had with one of the major powers in the Gulf was the Swiss government. The clever part is that the offer is not unconditional – it is hedged with preconditions for dialogue, most notably that Iran must suspend its nuclear enrichment activities.

Washington is seemingly in a no-lose situation. They either get the uranium suspension they want, or if the Iranians refuse the offer, they can go back to the Russians and the Chinese and say they have tried to engage but that the diplomatic route is exhausted. The Americans will then be in a much stronger position to demand tough action including possible sanctions, and they may already have had a private reassurance from the Russians along those lines. The announcement yesterday was as much aimed at third parties on the UN security council as it was at the Iranians.

Both sides are obsessed with history – the US about the humiliation of the hostage taking, the Iranians about the CIA backed ousting of Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953. So why are we now seeing these tentative moves towards a diplomatic resolution? In Washington, it illustrates the ascendancy of Condi Rice over the hardline axis of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld who are tarnished by domestic scandals and the debacle of Iraq. Her vision of transformational diplomacy is flavour of the month in a White House desperate for a positive story to boost the president’s appalling personal ratings. Britain and the EU will no doubt have played a role – the announcement came just days after Tony Blair visited Washington where he held private talks on Iran with Bush. The UK favours engagement, and if any European leader could persuade President Bush toward engagement, it was his oldest and most trusted ally.

A visit to the Golestan Palace in Tehran illustrates the crucial role that mirrors play in Iran’s glittering cultural history. The moves by both parties are currently reflecting each other – the American offer yesterday is a response to the letter from President Ahmadinejad, which was the first missive from an Iranian president since ties were severed. President Bush’s initial reaction to the letter was to dismiss it as irrelevant because it didn’t mention the nuclear row. Similarly, Iran has made a first response to the US offer, rejecting it as “propaganda” and according to Iran’s foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, rejecting the precondition of a suspension of uranium enrichment.

Iran’s reaction is unsurprising – intensely proud nationalists cannot be seen to be being bribed back to the table. We should wait until the US offer has had serious consideration to see how Iran has reacted. The initial statements asserted Iran’s “natural” right to nuclear power in a way which still leaves room for manoeuvre.

While many in the west obsess over Iran’s hardline president, we should remember that it is the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, who has the final say over all matters of national security and foreign policy. He publicly came out in favour of the letter from Ahmadinejad so seems to be predisposed towards some sort of negotiated settlement.

Deciphering Iran’s position on a particular issue on any one day is like searching through a hall of mirrors, but Iran may quietly be welcoming Washington’s offer of talks. There is a desperate need for the west to understand better the Islamic republic’s internal political structures. When I visited Iran, one official with links to the president told me that when Iran determines its foreign policy it has to go through 16 different channels to get approval, which can leave negotiating partners perplexed.

There are promising signs: despite public pronouncements, the Iranians are extremely keen to negotiate – the Foreign Policy Centre has received many offers from government figures to organise private, track two diplomacy between the west and Iran. An official from the supreme national security council, whose secretary, Ali Larijani, is a key figure in the negotiations, described the offer as good if it’s not for an unlimited time frame. Others have suggested that Iran will be prepared to suspend industrial scale production if they can keep the 164 centrifuges in Natanz. The US may not like this – but it may be necessary for Iran to save face. After all, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to realise that 164 centrifuges will not make a nuclear bomb. The trust needed for a long-term solution will only come now the US is directly engaged.

For the moment, America has the upper hand in the battle for hearts and minds – but don’t underestimate the Iranians. They are tough, savvy negotiators, with a nationalistic president who knows how to sway public opinion. There is new hope for a peaceful solution, which we warmly welcome, but there is many a slip between cup and lip.

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