TOPICS : The strategic case for talking to Iran

Iraq and Iran are not separate issues. The US cannot address the morass in Iraq without seeing it in a regional context and recognising the painful truth that the strategic winner in the Iraq war is Iran. Yet by its unwillingness to hold earnest talks with Tehran — discussions that might yield positive understanding and help defuse regional tensions — the US stumbles toward the disaster that would result from attacking Iran and dooms the dim prospect it has to stabilise Iraq.

There aren’t enough troops in Iraq to defeat the insurgency, disarm the militias, and establish a secure environment that will promote national reconciliation and political reform. Simultaneously fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, US ground forces are overextended and exhausted. This is not defeatism, this is reality. The coalition in Iraq needs sizable troop reinforcements from foreign nations, and it needs now.

Pursuing direct diplomacy with Iran is prudent and would serve US interests. It would defuse tensions, promote regional security, enhance US international prestige, and reassure allies. The US can start the conversation by doing three simple and reasonable things: declare that it will never strike Iran first with nuclear weapons; declare that it will not pursue regime change in Iran through military means; and offer to normalise US-Iranian relations. Bush administration officials would probably call this approach dangerously naive. Summoning the lessons of the 1938 Munich Agreement to assert the folly of appeasement, they would suggest that a showdown with Iran is inevitable and necessary. They ought to be reminded that every showdown need not end in hostilities.

Forty-four years ago this month, the US learned that the Soviet Union was deploying nuclear missiles to Cuba. The popular version of the Cuban Missile Crisis is that, faced with this threat, President Kennedy stared down Nikita Khrushchev — and the Soviet leader blinked. Though there was indeed an important military component in Kennedy’s response to Soviet adventurism, this grave crisis was resolved by deft diplomacy. Kennedy offered Khrushchev not one, but two face-saving concessions: a public declaration that the US would not invade Cuba, and a quiet assurance that the US would withdraw its intermediate-range Jupiter rockets from Turkey. We ought to remember the lessons of this crisis today. Strength can often be found in restraint; compromise does not always constitute appeasement; and there is a bit more to diplomacy than “Do what we say or we’ll bomb the hell out of you.” Diplomacy carries with it a necessity to compromise, even with dangerous people whose rhetoric is often troubling.

Normalising diplomatic relations with Iran would be a bold stroke and a clear signal that the US is intent on changing its policy in the region. And it may entice US allies and nations in the region to make significant and sustained contributions to political, economic, humanitarian, and military efforts to stabilise Iraq. — The Christian Science Monitor