A report published in Saturday’s New York Times reveals that the U.S. and Iran “have agreed in principle for the first time on one-on-one negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program” as “a last-ditch diplomatic effort to avert a military strike on Iran. The Obama administration has since denied that such agreement has been concluded while admitting that the White House was open to talks and has “said from the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally.” Indeed, prior to his election, President Obama was keen to open a dialogue with the Iranians, but despite receiving a personal letter from the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad which he neglected to answer, such talks failed to materialize.
There’s no doubt that Obama’s intentions were sound but he’s been hampered during his first term by the pro-Israel U.S. lobby that broadly espouses Benjamin Netanyahu’s view that the only way to prevent Iran producing nuclear weapons is the launch bombs. Obama was caught on an open microphone saying he would have greater flexibility during a second term and given his natural antipathy against embroiling his country in needless wars it seems logical to assume he prefers talking to conflict.
Iran’s foreign minister has likewise denied the veracity of the New York Times report. “We do not have anything such as talks with the United States,” he said, adding that he believed talks would commence with the permanent members of the UN Security Council at a date yet to be specified next month.
Denials from both sides should be taken with a pinch of salt as both the American and Iranian leaderships need time to nurture public opinion for such an eventuality. Without such preparation, Iranians would be dismayed to witness Ahmadinejad or Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei shaking hands with the “Great Satan’s” head honcho and the same goes for Americans when the 1979 US Embassy hostage crisis is engraved on their psyche.
Anyone with half a brain must realize that talking to resolve the longstanding dispute between countries determined to halt Tehran’s march toward a nuclear weapons capability is infinitely preferable to war, especially one that could set the entire Middle East and Gulf aflame with the potential of escalating into World War II should the Russians decide to get involved. And in light of Moscow’s unshakable stance on Syria, there is every indication they might. Vladimir Putin is in no mood to allow Washington to harm his country’s economic and geo-strategic interests; he’s a different man to the one who capitulated to the decisions of George W. Bush which cost Russia dearly. In fact, few world economies, many battling against recession, would escape unscathed when oil prices would spike to hitherto unseen levels.
War would be nothing short of madness, a truth that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is too blind to recognize. If he could remove his blinkers thus gaining peripheral vision he would see that if Iran were bombed it would eventually emerge as an even greater threat to Israel’s existence. Surely, bringing Iran into the international fold, provided it is willing to meet certain conditions, is the right way to assure the Jewish state’s security.
It seems that the Republican contender for the White House Mitt Romney is similarly myopic — or pretends to be in his courtship of Israel, or more specifically, Jewish billionaires falling over themselves to fill his campaign coffers. He’s also out to portray himself as someone who isn’t soft on any threats to US security and goes into muscle-flexing mode over Iran to make his point. In reality, he knows that even if Iran succeeds in building a nuclear bomb it would be used as a deterrent because the ayatollahs have showed no signs of being suicidal — and even if they were so disposed, they are nowhere close to manufacturing delivery systems capable of reaching US soil.
Romney has bought-in to Netanyahu’s “red lines” and is using Obama’s inaction over Iran as one of his foreign policy staples. The New York Times leak, coming just days before he faces off with Obama in the final debate, has put him in a quandary. When he was asked his opinion on potential one-to-one talks with Iran, he was evasive. If he blesses such talks, by extension he is acknowledging that Obama’s Iran policy of harsh sanctions is working. If he doesn’t, he comes across as someone itching to take the US into another war of choice on an Islamic nation. His only tack is to claim that Iran is insincere about negotiations and is merely playing for time, which may or may not be the case.
Iran could easily put a lid on Netanyahu’s chest-thumping if its leaders show they mean business. They should forget about losing face; they should forget about their contention that their ability to enrich uranium is a source of national pride — and they should cease inciting, funding and arming Shiite minorities in Arab lands. After all, where has that got them?
No man is an island until himself and that goes for a state too. Pride isn’t going to bring prosperity, as they have no doubt discovered. Indeed, they’ve already had a taste of civil unrest over Iran’s economy that is in chaos due to crippling U.S.-engendered trade and banking sanctions and an EU oil embargo. Earlier this month saw street clashes fueled by the fast depreciating Iranian currency when angry protesters shouted such slogans as “Mahmoud the traitor, leave politics” and “Leave Syria alone, instead think of us.” History tells us that when ordinary folk are hit hard in their pockets even the most repressive regimes are in jeopardy as the Shah discovered to his cost. Not even Sawak and a powerful military could save the Shah from discontented masses.
A modicum of common sense on the part of both sides could bring this saga gravely threatening the region and the world to a close. It’s a terrible shame that common sense is the one thing most politicians seem to lack. Let’s see.
The writer is a columnist at the Saudi-based Arab News, where this article was published on Oct. 23, 2012