Monday, September 7, 2009

Iran's Two-Track Stance on Talks: Western Opportunity

On Sept. 3, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran’s envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency, was quoted by the website of Iran’s al-Alam television station (according to the Iran Quest internet Iran news site, as stating that:

It is wrong to think that possible talks with (the six world powers) would be about Iran’s nuclear program….Iran’s nuclear issue can only be examined at the International Atomic Energy Agency.

One possible reaction to this is to read negatively. Indeed, it does sound as though the speaker wants to define the two tracks separately as a means of obstructing progress. Nothing would be easier in the hostile and one-sided political environment of the West than to pretend this simple quote represents the sum total of Iran’s official position and the sum total of its capacity for national security thinking. If one is searching for an excuse to discard moderation, dismiss negotiations, and move toward war, such a reaction would certainly be the way to go.

Another possible reaction is to see what advantage can be derived from this Iranian proposal for two-track negotiations about the state of global affairs. It is not only logical that Iranians concerned about their country’s national security would be capable of considering a policy other than frontal confrontation, the historical record demonstrates that they have done so. One need not go back to Iran’s cooperation with the U.S. in 2001 when it invaded Afghanistan; leading up to the recent Iranian presidential campaign, Ahmadinejad was criticized for his provocative stance toward the West…and not just by those currently known as “opposition” candidates. For Westerners seeking a solution to the nuclear dispute with Iran, it would quite simply be self-defeating to overlook this opportunity.

The argument that Iran’s two-track position represents an opportunity can be argued on many levels, but just consider one: the bureaucratic level. It is now surely obvious to everyone who watches Iran that the national government is highly factionalized. Beyond that, any government that engages in a political process sets up bureaucratic organs of some sort to implement the details. The longer the process lasts, the more entrenched these organs become and the more concerned the members naturally become in “looking good” at home by engaging in some sort of notable, distinguishing behavior.

If Iran engages in prolonged talks about “global disarmament” at one international venue and similarly prolonged talks about “Iran’s nuclear development” at another international venue, two bureaucratic organs will be established – one for each venue. The more serious and complicated the Western approach to such talks, the more bureaucratic resources Iran will be likely to devote. Each organ will be to some varying degree accessible to a range of domestic political pressures. Westerners who think a finely tuned Iranian diplomatic engine will run both processes in precise lockstep simply do not understand the internal cleavages in the Iranian political system. It does not take a genius to predict that opportunities for diplomatic progress will occur…and evaporate if not perceived.

It is to the advantage of everyone on both sides who support a peaceful resolution of the nuclear dispute between Washington and Tehran to take the two-track approach seriously, investing significant diplomatic resources and putting on the table significant potential concessions that will appeal to like-thinking moderates on the opposite side. Cheney did not represent all American thinking on relations with the Muslim world over the last decade; Jafari does not represent all Iranian thinking on relations with the West.

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