Talking to Iran: What Are Washington’s Options?

Talking to Iran: What Are Washingtons Options?

President Obama says he’ll talk to Iran if Tehran “unclenches its fist”; President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says Iran is open to negotiations but only on a basis of “fairness and mutual respect.” Both men’s coded conditionals are a reminder that after three decades of mutual hostility, talking won’t be easy. TIME tapped a number of Iran experts for perspective on some of the key questions facing U.S.-Iran diplomacy.

When should talks begin
Conventional wisdom holds that Obama should wait until after the Iranian presidential election in June before making an approach. With any luck, Ahmadinejad will lose — perhaps to his more moderate predecessor, Mohammed Khatami, who has a history of reaching out to the West. Even if Ahmadinejad is re-elected, Khatami’s mere entry into the fray may force him to open up, says Ali Ansari, an Iran expert at London’s Chatham House, a foreign policy think tank. “The one thing Khatami can deliver is better relations with the U.S. Ahmadinejad will want to cancel that out by saying, ‘I can do that too.’ ”

But other experts say it’s pointless to wait for the June vote, not least because its outcome is entirely unpredictable. “American attempts to game out Iranian politics, to try and determine who is on top, [are] doomed to fail,” says Hillary Mann Leverett, a former Iran expert at the State Department and the National Security Council. She argues that U.S.-Iran talks should not be linked to personalities, saying they’ll only be meaningful “if they are about issues, about substantive things.”

The election, in fact, does not even decide who ultimately rules Iran: executive power rests not with the President but with the clerical Supreme Leader, Ayatullah Ali Khamenei. Since his personal clout won’t be affected by the elections, the best time to start talking is now, the argument goes. And speedy talks would also allow Obama to use some of the political capital from his election to persuade the American public that a rapprochement with Iran is a good idea.

To whom should the U.S. talk
A direct conversation with the Supreme Leader may not be feasible in the short term, but one expert who has advised the Obama Administration on Iran policy argues that the U.S. can still talk over Ahmadinejad’s head to Khamenei. “We should aim our rhetoric at Khamenei,” says the expert, who asked not to be named. “He will decide whom to appoint [to talk with the U.S.].”

Mann Leverett, who conducted secret negotiations with the Iranians on behalf of the Bush Administration between 2001 and 2003, says her Iranian counterparts made sure to report to Khamenei or his trusted advisers before and after every conversation with U.S. officials. She points out that two former Foreign Ministers — Ali Akbar Velayati and Kamal Kharraji — are among those advisers. Both men have had some experience in dealing with the West.

Who should do the talking for the U.S.
This could be a problem area. Obama’s planned point man on Iran is Dennis Ross, who served as Middle East envoy to both George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Ross takes a hawkish view of dealing with Iran, emphasizing the coercive diplomacy of sanctions. Ross himself was not available for interviews, but his position on Iran is well known. He has long argued for ramping up economic pressure on Tehran, telling TIME in 2007 that “if Iran thinks it is actually going to be cut off economically, which has not been the case in the sanctions so far, then you have a chance to change their behavior.”

Ross has also said the U.S. has just 18 months to avoid a scenario in which Israel attacks Iran to stop its nuclear program. Such views would make his appointment anathema to Tehran, not least because of Ross’s own long-established connections to Israel. In Arab capitals, he was generally regarded as biased toward Israel throughout the Oslo peace process, and his central role in bodies such as the Jerusalem-based Jewish People Policy Planning Institute and the advocacy group United Against Nuclear Iran will hardly endear him to the Iranians.

Iran experts say their contacts in Tehran have conveyed alarm at the prospect of Ross’s appointment. But if Obama appoints him, the Iranians will have no options. “The best we can hope is that Ross’s negatives, in Iranian eyes, will be canceled by the fact that he is a power player,” says one Iran expert.

What should they talk about
The big-ticket topics are clear enough. The U.S. wants Iran to drop its nuclear program and to stop backing radical groups like Hamas and Hizballah. Iran insists on its right to a nuclear-energy program and wants an end to economic and financial sanctions, as well as guarantees that the U.S. will not seek regime change in Tehran.

But some Iran experts say it’s best to start small, building confidence and a more positive dynamic by seeking cooperation in areas of overlapping interest. Afghanistan, says Karim Sajadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “is the perfect [issue on which] to commence the dialogue.” Like the U.S., Iran doesn’t want to see a resurgence of the Taliban or al-Qaeda; both of those groups subscribe to a radical Sunni view that regards Iran’s Shi’ism as an abomination.

Iran also shares the concern of Western governments about the vast quantities of opium traveling across the porous border with Afghanistan; drug addiction has grown steeply among Iranians.

And there’s certainly a recent precedent for such cooperation: Iran and the U.S. collaborated to bring down the Taliban after 9/11 and continued to quietly work together for more than a year afterward on efforts to stabilize the Karzai government in Kabul.

Richard Holbrooke, President Obama’s envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, is reported to favor enlisting Tehran’s help in the war against Afghan drug lords and their supply routes. That would be a smart call, says Sajadpour. Once fruitful dialogue and cooperation have been established on the issue of drugs, he says, “then you can gradually expand the scope [of talks] to include nuclear issues, Hamas and Hizballah.”

Not all Iran experts agree, though, that such small-bore cooperation will lead to meaningful discussion on the big issues: nukes and terrorism. Mann Leverett warns that such cooperation will fail unless accompanied by talks with “a comprehensive agenda, leading to a rapprochement and a strategic understanding between Iran and the U.S.”

Leslie H. Gelb, of the Council on Foreign Relations, believes the Iranians won’t be interested in small accommodations and will probably hold out for more substantive discussion. That’s because the Iranians have been down the road of small-bore cooperation with the U.S. before, most recently on Afghanistan, and have invariably been left with nothing to show for their efforts. “They’ll wait for a [broader] conversation,” he says. Only after comprehensive talks begin, Gelb says,”can there be individual acts of cooperation by each side, to show good faith.”