Can the United States and Iran ever get together, even on the most abbreviated basis? The record is not good. In 1979, Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to Jimmy Carter, met with the Iranian foreign minister in Algiers. Only two days later, the American embassy in Tehran was seized. Another national security adviser, this one Robert McFarlane, serving under Ronald Reagan, also ran into trouble when he tried to deal with Tehran, showing up there at one point with a cake and a Bible. In 2000, Bill Clinton’s secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, reached out to the government in Iran but with little later to show for her effort.
For these reasons Washington is reluctant to have any dealings with Iran, even when they might be worth the trouble. In the spring of 2003, leaders in Iran, frantic at the sight of America’s sweep through Iraq, approached the Bush administration through Swiss diplomacy, hoping to reach an arrangement that would steady their situation. Vice President Dick Cheney advised against contact, arguing that the regime in Tehran was about to implode. Sure it was.
Now a much stronger Iran, emboldened by the price of oil, has prompted its ambassador to the United Nations to press for talks, not only on Iraq, which the U.S. has agreed to enter, but also on Tehran’s nuclear program, a continuing subject of bitter dispute.
Why not discuss the nuclear imbroglio with Iran? We may be in a better position than we think. I heard an Iranian professor say that the current regime is living in a Brezhnev era, running a status quo country, and its paramount interest is not nuclear weapons, or destroying Israel — it is staying in power. To do that, in the face of a young population that craves economic advantage and national prestige and knows not much about the nuclear controversy, requires a low-grade confrontation with the United States, to keep everybody excited about the latest president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The politicians around the president, said this professor, favor the nuclear program as long as the UN Security Council does nothing but talk and there is no price to be paid for it. But if the Americans insist on sanctions, Iranian business and technical people, none too keen on the nuclear deal, will be heeded. That may be what has happened, and the reason for the op ed piece in the New York Times last week by Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, calling for negotiations. The announcement that Iran has enriched uranium could be in response to Washington’s indifference to that proposal.
It also could be an answer to Seymour Hirsch’s article in the New Yorker in which he wrote that the Pentagon has come up with plans to hit Iran’s nuclear installations with tactical nuclear weapons. It’s a bad idea. As some observers have pointed out, hostilities might not stop there. Iran could respond with a terrorist attack within our borders, and then our retaliation would escalate into war. Moreover, those nuclear facilities could be rebuilt easily in about four years.
The final point of the Iranian professor was this: After the revolutionary generation passes from the scene, Iran will forget about its animosity toward Israel and its need for antagonism toward America. Then, he said, a productive relationship between Washington and Tehran would make Iran the most important country in the Middle East, along with Israel. It would be a configuration with which the United States could work. Getting there may be filled with treachery and danger. But refusing to try could well be worse