The United States Should Wait to Engage Iran Until Ahmadinejad Is Gone
Wrong. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is not the problem, and hi rival Mohammad Khatami is not (necessarily) the solution. For many years, U.S. administrations have thought that, if they just waited long enough, Iranian politics would produce a leader that Washington would like dealing with. When I served as director for Iran and Afghanistan affairs at the National Security Council from 2001 to 2003, national security advisor Condoleezza Rice dismissed then President Khatami as a potential diplomatic partner for the United States. Indeed, the erstwhile Sovietologist compared Khatami to Mikhail Gorbachev, arguing that by engaging Khatami, the United States would risk missing the opportunity to find the Islamic Republic's Boris Yeltsin.
Now, of course, after nearly four years of Ahmadinejad, the United States can hardly wait for Khatami to come back. Moreover, during Ahmadinejad's presidency, many in Washington have come to view Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as a moderating influence -- this, of course, being the same ayatollah who, during Khatami's presidency, was widely criticized in the West as an authoritarian cleric thwarting the clear preference of the Iranian public for liberal reform.
Focusing on individual Iranian politicians misses an important reality: The Islamic Republic of Iran actually has a system of government, with multiple and competing power centers.
On foreign policy in particular, the system makes decisions by consensus. No president -- no matter how reformist or conservative in orientation -- will be able to force through significant changes in Iranian foreign policy without the acquiescence of other power centers, most notably the supreme leader.
This is why the breathless discussion of whether Washington should reach out to Tehran, be it with a letter from President Barack Obama or some sort of formal diplomatic proposal in advance of Iran's presidential election in June, is so misguided. The United States should make diplomatic proposals to Iran on their merits, recognizing that the Iranian power structure as a whole will be processing and responding to those proposals. Trying to game the Iranian political system in the hopes of ultimately finding a pliable Iranian interlocutor not only won't work; it will only confirm the worst suspicions in Tehran that the United States will never be willing to accept the Islamic Republic as Iran's legitimate political order.
The Iranian Government Is Too Divided to 'Deliver' in Any Serious Negotiation
Wrong again. This is a pearl of conventional wisdom dispensed by so-called American experts on Iran -- but only by those who have never negotiated with, nor perhaps even talked with, actual Iranian officials. The assertion is completely contradicted by several episodes of U.S. engagement with the Islamic Republic, going back more than 20 years. I myself participated in one of these episodes, negotiating with Iran over Afghanistan and al Qaeda for almost two years from 2001 to 2003 on behalf of the U.S. government.
During these talks, I saw firsthand how Iranian diplomats can negotiate productively, deliver on specific commitments they have made, and make concessions and calculate trade-offs across a range of issues to enhance their country's overall strategic position. My Iranian interlocutors were the three most senior officials responsible for the Islamic Republic's policy toward Afghanistan. They were knowledgeable, serious, and credible in their representations. If the United States is now sincere about diplomatic engagement with Tehran, there is no reason to expect that the Iranians tapped to meet with Obama's representatives -- regardless of who occupies the president's office in Tehran -- would be any less knowledgeable, serious, and credible.
Iran Is an Immature, Ideological State That Cannot Think About Its National Interest
No. It is commonly asserted in Washington that, if Iran were to obtain nuclear weapons, it would use them to carry out alleged threats by Ahmadinejad and other Iranian leaders to wipe Israel off the map. These threats would be carried out without any regard to the consequences that would befall Iran; according to this perspective, the Islamic Republic aspires to become history's first suicide nation.
The reality of Iran's national security strategy is far different. Candid conversations with Iranian officials confirm what long observation of Iranian policies strongly suggests: Iran pursues an asymmetric national security strategy, aimed at generating for the Islamic Republic the same security that conventional military capabilities, allies, and strategic depth -- all things that Iran does not have -- provide for other countries. This strategy includes developing unconventional military capabilities, including at least a nuclear weapons option as a last-ditch deterrent.
This strategy is not going to change as a result of Iran's upcoming presidential election. The Islamic Republic established its asymmetric national security strategy before Khatami was first elected in 1997. It was Iran's national security strategy during both terms of Khatami's presidency. It has remained Iran's national security strategy under Ahmadinejad. Perhaps something beyond individual personalities is at work here. If the United States and its allies want to stop Iran from going all the way to overt nuclear weaponization, they need to be prepared to address the Islamic Republic's most fundamental security concerns -- not to demonize individual Iranian politicians as latter-day Hitlers bent on a second Holocaust.