The US has nothing to lose by negotiating with Iran

Agreeing to a parley with Iran wouldn't imply US acceptance of Iran's actions.

As troubles for the United States mount in Iraq, the Bush administration escalates its complaints against Iran: Iran won't recognize Israel. Worse, it says Israel ought to be wiped off the map. It won't abandon its nuclear program. It continues to support the Hizbullah insurgents in Lebanon. It is intervening covertly in Iraq. It is cooperating with Al Qaeda.

Iran says its nuclear program is for generating electricity; the US says it could also produce nuclear weapons. The US says it has captured weapons in Iraq with serial numbers and other markings indicating that they were made in Iran.

Given the way in which President Bush led the nation into war with Iraq, he should not have been surprised when his statements about Iran were greeted with skepticism. People remember President Reagan's 1983 invasion of Grenada. Mr. Reagan's purpose, some thought, was to take the public's mind off the bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon just two days earlier.

So, one may ask: Is Mr. Bush now plotting a war in Iran to divert attention from the war in Iraq? The more Bush and his spokesmen deny it, the stronger the suspicion that it is true.

There could be no better example of the value of credibility in international affairs. Once credibility is lost by such deceptions as the untrue assertion of the presence in Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, a very long time is required to get it back. The US will pay this price of the Iraq war as long as it pays in military casualties and the national debt.

It is not helping that even as the administration is charging cooperation between Al Qaeda and Iran, the CIA is reporting the arrest by Iran of Al Qaeda agents caught traveling through Iran en route from Pakistan to Iraq.

Last week as the UN deadline approached for Iranian dismantlement of its nuclear program, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad offered dismantlement if the US and Europe would do the same. He could scarcely have expected a serious response, but framing the issue in those terms reinforced the idea that, for Iran, becoming a nuclear power is a way to national prestige. It would put Iran – a proud country, but still in the third world – up in the same class with the US, Russia, and much of western Europe.

Iran is not going to be easily dissuaded from this goal.

Even more than oil, nuclear power gives Iran a bargaining lever with the West, and especially with the US. It goes against Bush's grain to recognize this. In dealing with other countries, the president is prone to the view that they have to make concessions before the US will deign to talk to them.

This is an offensive display of the arrogance of power. Yet in many cases, it is the keystone of Bush's foreign policy: Do it our way or else. If the object of negotiations is to persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear program, then it makes no sense to demand that this happen before negotiations. But for the US position in the world, it makes a big difference whether it happens through negotiations or browbeating.

To agree to negotiations does not imply that you are necessarily going to agree to whatever the other side wants. To refuse to negotiate almost always means that you are not going to get what you want. Why should members of the other side accommodate you when you won't even talk to them?

In 1930, Foreign Minister Genaro Estrada of Mexico set a principle that has since come to bear his name: the Estrada Doctrine. It holds that the act of establishing diplomatic relations with the government of another country simply recognizes that it is in effective control of its country.

Recognition does not imply approval or disapproval of the other government's policies or actions.

As the US Senate put it in 1969, this act "does not of itself imply that the United States approves of the form, ideology, or policy of that foreign government."

Congress followed this in 1978 with a statement that "the conduct of diplomatic relations with a foreign government has as its principal purpose the discussion and negotiation with that government of outstanding issues and ... does not in itself imply approval of that government or of the political-economic system it represents."

The Bush administration this week agreed to attend regional meetings this spring that may include Iran – but only to discuss Iraq. That may be a step in the right direction, but it is not enough.

Pat M. Holt is former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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