Iran's reformers to U.S.: Let's talk

Ex-president Khatami says don't let hard-liners in US and Iran dictate the relationship.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Shirin Ebadi are among several key Iranian public figures saying that only direct, unconditional talks with the US can ease spiraling tensions.

Mr. Khatami – the reformist cleric who was twice elected in landslide victories – and Ms. Ebadi – a human rights lawyer who just launched a National Peace Council – are suggesting that hard-liners in the US and Iran should no longer dictate the terms of division. One Iranian analyst says: It's time to call the bluff on both sides – and talk.

"The solution is for both sides to resort to logic, refrain from provocative rhetoric, and put the emphasis on negotiations," Khatami told the Monitor.

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"We have no choice but to overcome misunderstandings that mostly stem from the meddling of the US [in the Middle East] and its wrong policies in Iran," said Khatami. "We can find common interests in the region and the world. And we can also avoid actions that would be damaging to both sides."

Failure could mean "things will get worse, a huge crisis will be created, and then it is not only Iran that would suffer," warns Khatami. "Our crisis-stricken region would also suffer greatly, and the US itself."

Khatami and Ebadi echo the sentiments of many Iranians – including some in the conservative government – who prefer dialogue and detente with the US to brinksmanship, though hard-line factions often undermine such efforts.

On Friday, Iran's new top nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, is to discuss "new initiatives" with EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana in London. On Saturday, diplomats of six world powers – the five permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany – meet in Paris to discuss further steps against Iran.

President George Bush warns of World War III if Iran acquires nuclear know-how, and this week in Annapolis he said that a key reason the US is renewing Israel-Palestinian peace efforts is "because a battle is under way for the future of the Middle East, and we must not cede victory to the extremists" – a reference to Iran and its militant allies.

For Iran, challenging the "Great Satan," the US, was a pillar of the 1979 Islamic revolution, and Iran's current conservative leadership vilifies the US and Israel at every turn. Iran says the American peace effort is "doomed to fail," and plans to hold a counter-Annapolis meeting within two weeks, bolstering its regional credentials as leader of an "Axis of Resistance" by gathering militant groups shut out of the US confab.

But more positive signals lie behind the headline-making rhetoric, and past talk of "regime change" in Washington.

Iran's combative president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has said repeatedly that Iran is ready for broad discussions with the US, based on mutual respect and without preconditions. In September, he added that America could be a "good friend" of Iran. US and Iranian ambassadors have so far met three times in Baghdad, with a fourth meeting imminent, to discuss security in Iraq.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says she is also ready for talks "any place, any time, anywhere," but only if Iran first suspends uranium enrichment – a precondition that Tehran says it will never agree to again. It suspended enrichment in 2003 and 2004 but that yielded little tangible benefit.

Sen. Chuck Hagel (R) of Nebraska said earlier this month the US should "actively pursue an offer of direct, unconditional, and comprehensive talks with Iran." The risk of war is too high, he said, with a nation that "will ... remain a significant regional power" in the 21st century, whether the US launches an attack or not.

"We're in a situation where anything the Americans do – being softer on Iran, or tougher – will strengthen hard-liners here," says an Iranian political scientist in Tehran who asked not to be named. Going softer enables hard-liners to say that Iran's uncompromising approach is working, the analyst says, while a tougher line and more sanctions will "consolidate the power of Ahmadinejad and the hard-liners."

"If I were America, I would call his bluff ... and accept Ahmadinejad's invitation to talks in a comprehensive way," he says. He doubts such a step is possible by Mr. Bush or Vice President Dick Cheney, who say that for Iran to develop nuclear weapons (which Iran denies seeking) is "unacceptable."

US fears of Iran's nuclear program are a "pretext" that can be resolved through inspections and accepting Iran's "right" to nuclear technology," says Khatami. "Iran does not have the bomb and does not want the bomb."

"The US is in the same dilemma that we are in, and wants to have it both ways," says the analyst. "The US wants to talk, but not give legitimacy to the regime. Iran wants to talk, but does not want to call it 'talks' or recognize the legitimacy of US interests."

"If [Iran's offer to talk] is a bluff, you called it. And if they accept, it will force them to change," says the analyst. "A serious and concerted effort to talk and engage is the only way. Otherwise it is all misperceptions, [and belief] that the US is after toppling the regime."

But Iran's Islamic system, while not universally popular, is not likely to collapse, analysts say. To counter militarism, Nobel laureate Ebadi called upon Iranians last week to join her in creating a broad-based National Peace Council.

"War will not solve any problem. Peace negotiations must start," Ebadi told the Monitor. Iran should "respect UN resolutions," including one that requires suspending enrichment. "If America offers to negotiate, Iran must accept."

"Attacking Iraq was beyond international rules, and [the US] should not make the same mistake regarding Iran," said Ebadi. "Both governments should change their dialogue, bring down their rhetoric and reduce tensions."

But each side regularly demonizes the other. "There is a serious current in Iran that thinks there shouldn't be any relationship between the US and Iran," says former Vice President Mohammad Ali Abtahi. For that group, "Iran needs an enemy, and its better for that enemy to be America."

The framework for a "grand bargain" that would have addressed all outstanding issues emerged in spring 2003 with a two-page fax from Tehran to Washington. The offer was ignored by a US administration emboldened by the swift fall of Saddam Hussein.

"There is no country that has more common interests with America than Iran," says Sadegh Kharazi, the former Iranian ambassador to France who helped draft the offer. "We still have our [anti-US] revolutionary slogans, but we are not looking for confrontation," he adds. "We don't want to be in love with America. [What] is important for us is coexistence with each other, an armistice for the future."

In politics "nothing is impossible," but the US path must lead directly to Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei, says Mr. Kharazi: "Foreign policy is under [his] direct supervision ... the Leader is the one who can decide. America should do it carefully."

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