Talking to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—and the opposition—about Iran today.

by Jon Lee Anderson


American officials find the regime’s brash talk worrisome. “The view there that the United States is militarily incapable, that’s a dangerous view,” Lee Hamilton, the former congressman and co-chair of the Iraq Study Group, told me. “It’s not a question of capability. If we have the will to do it, I think we can.” He believes that Ahmadinejad might have misread the West’s intentions. “They are very isolated in Iran and they don’t know the United States nearly as well as they think they do.”

Nonetheless, in the past few weeks the Iranian government has seemed newly open to negotiating. On July 26th, the European Union and Canada announced yet another round of sanctions; the same day, Iran’s government sent a letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency that, an Iranian official said, offered its willingness to resume talks on the Brazil-Turkey deal “without any conditions.” The former senior civilian U.S. official said he believed the sanctions had the desired effect. “In my experience, the things that have the most influence on Iran are those which find ways to block what they want to do, and one of those things is to be a big regional player. They can’t do that very well under sanctions. They respond to adversity.”

Meanwhile, Obama has kept up the pressure on Iran to make a more comprehensive deal. In recent weeks, the Administration publicly raised both the prospect of negotiations and the possibility of war. Hamilton said that officials were still debating the best approach to take with Iran, but many felt that the time for diplomacy had begun to run out. “Since about three months ago, there is a discernible mood for military action,” he said. “The Administration has said that a nuclear weapon in Iran is unacceptable, which implies that containment is off the agenda.” (He noted, though, that the U.S. had ruled out containment in the past, only to embrace it later, as with North Korea.)

On August 1st, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, confirmed on “Meet the Press” that the United States had made contingency plans for a strike against Iran. “Military actions have been on the table and remain on the table,” he said. “I hope we don’t get to that, but it’s an important option, and it’s one that’s well understood.” Mullen added that he worried that an attack could have “unintended consequences that are difficult to predict in what is an incredibly unstable part of the world.”

Three days later, Obama told reporters that he remained open to negotiations with the Iranians, if they offer “confidence-building measures.” He said, “It is very important to put before the Iranians a clear set of steps that we would consider sufficient to show that they are not pursuing nuclear weapons,” and added, “They should know what they can say ‘yes’ to.”

If Obama is to bring Iran to talks, he will have to overcome a good deal of resistance in Washington. “You saw the sanctions vote. What was it, four hundred and eight to eight in Congress?” Hamilton said. “Obama is confronted with a very strong, very committed, very heartfelt opposition to Iran in Congress.” This difficulty is compounded by frustration over the inability to find a diplomatic solution. Because America’s engagement with Iran has focussed on the single, intractable issue of nuclear arms, it has become difficult for the Administration to make perceptible progress. Obama has been more successful than Bush in orchestrating an international sanctions effort. But, after sanctions, what else can he do?

Hamilton advocated a patient course of continued diplomacy. “There won’t be a parting of the skies overnight. The Iranians seem to feel the United States must go first, and make a dramatic gesture, but such a gesture by Obama is very difficult right now. . . . My feeling is that the talks must be conducted secretly, whoever does them or wherever they take place.”

With its constant tension and endless delays, Hamilton said, the American-Iranian impasse reminded him of Cold War-era relations with the Soviet Union. “Year after year, we met and read out speeches to each other and then raised toasts to our grandchildren with each other, but nothing ever happened. Then, finally, we got down to talks, and things moved. I hope this doesn’t take forty years.”


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