Just Talk to Iran - An Open
Letter To President Bush

By Terrell E. Arnold

Dear Mr. President: 
Within the past few days the Government of Iran has made explicit requests to you and your Secretary of State for direct talks with the United States on nuclear matters. Those requests have been repeated over a period of at least three years, while your team has used every elliptical "diplomatic" device, including threats to bomb Iran, to coerce Iranian leadership into accepting special, even unique rules for any Iranian nuclear program. Those gambits have succeeded mainly in strengthening Iranian resolve, while demonstrating that the US posture is contrary to the only international treaty on this subject that applies both to the United States and to Iran, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Isn't it time to dispense with those pretenses and talk directly to the Iranians about these matters?
Like many a famous Persian, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad may be more philosophical or poetic than political in his approach to you.  In his early May letter to you he nonetheless laid out a range of grievances, all of which are true enough, beginning with the US-backed overthrow of Iran's elected government in 1953.  The striking feature of all that is despite the sense of injury that Iranians feel toward the United States they still believe the correct way to approach the future is to talk it through.  That is the powerful utility of face to face dialogue.
The prospect of diplomatic talks inevitably forces all the parties to get their ducks in a row.  That does not mean that either side will give the other a complete picture of the whole row of ducks,but it does mean that both sides will be weighing the value of their arguments and inducements as well as the worth of any tradable goods that might eventually be laid on the table. 
In this respect, both sides have problems. Iran has taken an apparently immovable position on its right to process nuclear fuel for power production.  That seems unduly stubborn on its part, but Iran is a member of the NPT, and the treaty says members have the right to process fuel for peaceful purposes. The position the US has taken on Iran's treaty rights is not a double standard, as some have objected.  The US is simply trying to impose a special rule, one that goes far beyond the NPT, on Iran and possibly North Korea, although the approaches are different in those two cases.
Meanwhile, on your visit to India you agreed to help India develop a "peaceful" nuclear program while it continues to maintain a separate, but hidden, nuclear weapons program. To be sure, India is not a member of the NPT, but no treaty can survive this kind of insult to its integrity. And no other NPT power can find either the India case or the effort to euchre Iran into giving up its treaty rights by sheer harassment as worthy of treaty membership.
The proposed US missile defense "to protect Europe from Iranian attack" is simply part of the harassment approach to diplomacy with Iran.  No strategy is more ludicrous than protecting Europe from warheads or delivery systems that Iran does not have; therefore the Russians, who are openly offended by the idea and who possess thousands of nuclear weapons, could easily see the missile defense as targeted on them.  Such a backhanded restart of the Cold War is so reckless as to be entirely unthinkable, and so ridiculous on its face that its bargaining weight with the Iranians is to say the least negligible.
Given its more than three year history of efforts to start a dialogue with the United States, Iran is obviously approachable.  Threats, coercion, and third-party gambits do not fill this need. Rather, they appear mainly to reinforce Iran in its posture under the NPT. Why not take that at face value and set out to fully implement the treaty with Iran.  That would mean granting to Iran the same right as any other NPT member to process fuel for power production.  But it would also mean that Iran has to agree to an entirely open, UN IAEA surveilled program.  It is highly doubtful that Iran would seek dialogue with the United States if Iranian leadership did not see the implications of real life under the NPT.
The immediate choice posed by Iran's effort to negotiate directly with the United States is either (a) to continue trying to harass Iran into giving up its nuclear program, while forcing it to go for variously covert operations to exercise its NPT rights; or (b) deal directly with Iranian leadership, all of whom appear dedicated to present positions, and work out an arrangement that brings them willingly into the fold.
It will cost the United States virtually nothing to talk with Iran. If that fails, other approaches can be tried. Instead of spending billions of dollars and enormous amounts of US credibility on a pointless missile defense, why not spend a few million dollars on diplomatic engagement? What really does anybody have to lose?
The Honorable Terrell E. Arnold
Minister Counselor for Foreign Affairs (ret)
Foreign Service of the United States   
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