Time to Talk With Iran

In responding to the Jan. 7 CNN interview with Iranian President Mohamad Khatami, the United States has proposed discussions between government representatives. But if US and Iranian delegations sat down at a table today, what would they talk about? Talks not supported by a politically defensible rationale and a realistic agenda can quickly degenerate into disappointments and recriminations.

American and Iranian representatives meet now at The Hague to implement post-hostage agreements on claims, but their mandate is limited. Formidable obstacles face efforts to achieve a broader dialogue. Opposition to the very idea of talking creates political risks for participants on both sides who cannot demonstrate acceptable progress. Pressures of politics, history, and ideology dictate agenda items that provide little hope for immediate results.

James P. Rubin, the State Department spokesman, has made clear the elements of a US agenda: a halt to Iran's support for terrorism, termination of its programs of weapons of mass destruction and related delivery systems, and cessation of its active help to radicals opposed to peace in the Middle East. Each of these items is closely tied to Iran's revolutionary experience, including its long war with Iraq. US approaches are likely to be met by verbal attacks on Israel, denials of allegations, and charges of US interference in Iran's affairs.

Official talks have advantages

Iran, for its part, would almost certainly call for an end to US sanctions against investments and trade and protest Washington's efforts to curb exports and technical help from Russia and China. Since any easing of these policies would require congressional action, American negotiators would have little room for maneuver.

The US focus on official talks is understandable. Although meetings between private citizens of the two countries can humanize differences and deepen the appreciation of diverse attitudes and traditions, such meetings have limitations. The relationship of the interlocutors to official authority can be unclear. The enthusiasm of participants to improve relations often creates unrealistic expectations and disappointments. Ultimately, if unofficial talks are to produce progress, they must lead to official decisions and actions.

Secret official talks would provide the best opportunity to fully explore issues away from public pressures. But with myriad groups in both countries interested in US-Iran relations, it is hard to see how talks would remain secret. Revelation of such talks could cause serious political embarrassment for both sides.

Cultural exchanges are not enough

President Khatami proposed moving the relationship forward through cultural exchanges. Presumably such exchanges could lead to official talks. But if an agreement to facilitate visits by scholars and artists is the only result, the agreement will do little to placate critics. More substantial results would be demanded as the price of agreeing to meet with an adversary.

Mr. Rubin's statement about talks suggests that they could only be successful if they brought about significant changes in current Iranian policies. While this would obviously be desirable to the US, such an immediate breakthrough seems doubtful. No proud nation, including Iran, wishes to be seen to capitulate to an outside power.

The absence of possibilities for major breakthroughs should not discourage talks. Iran and the US have interests in common: successful completion of ongoing discussions of claims at The Hague, global energy policies, curbs on Iraq, and the future of the Gulf and Central Asian regions.

Khatami's courageous initiative has opened the door. That door may not stay open, however, if the US proposal for talks is seen as a set of demands. Is it not conceivable for the US to propose talks, not as demands, but in recognition of the importance of Iran in the region and in the interest of an official exchange of views and information? Possibilities for progress and possible agreements might emerge. Even in the depth of the cold war, the US and the USSR never broke off official contacts.

* David D. Newsom, former undersecretary of state, is Cumming Memorial Professor of International Affairs at the University of Virginia.

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