The strategic case for talking with Iran

Iraq and Iran are not separate issues. The United States cannot address the morass in Iraq without seeing it in a regional context and recognizing 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 mutual 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 stabilize 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 them now.

Our allies have any number of reasons for being reluctant to contribute troops to Iraq: a disdain for Donald "Old Europe" Rumsfeld, the lack of a high-level steering group to guide postconflict efforts and share decisionmaking (such as the five-nation Contact Group in Bosnia), and most of all, a fear that relieving some of the US burden in Iraq may pave the way for an American preemptive strike on Iran's nuclear-research facilities.

The longer the US delays dialogue with Iran, the less probable it is that other nations will come to its aid in Iraq, and the more certain it becomes that Iraq will deteriorate into all-out civil war.

Policy choices become clearer once the US recognizes that a "military option" to deal with Iran is absurd. Bombing Iran would further radicalize that country, inflame the Middle East, and set off a chain of events that might end with Islamic fundamentalists seizing power in nuclear-armed Pakistan.

Starting the conversation

Pursuing direct diplomacy with Iran, however, 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: 1) declare that it will never strike Iran first with nuclear weapons; 2) declare that it will not pursue regime change in Iran through military means; and 3) offer to normalize 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 – a naval blockade and a full nuclear alert – 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.

Compromise doesn't mean appeasement

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. Yes, even with Nikita "We will bury you" Khrushchev, or Mahmoud "Holocaust? What Holocaust?" Ahmadinejad.

The US has much to gain by breaking the negotiating impasse and recognizing Iran's ruling regime – by itself a major concession. There is plenty to discuss: Weapons proliferation, Iran's nuclear program, regional security arrangements in the Persian Gulf and Middle East, security guarantees, and confidence-building measures. The two sides could even carve out a formalized advisory role for Iran on matters related to Iraq. Thorny topics, such as the need to disarm Hizbullah and recognize Israel, should be on the agenda, too. Countries that have not talked for 26 years will have some serious catching up to do.

Any effort to change course in Iraq must first come to terms with Iran's ascendancy in the region. Normalizing 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 stabilize Iraq.

Thomas Raleigh, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, was a military adviser to the US ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in Vienna.

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