Friday, June 01, 2007

The cost of not talking to your enemy

The cost of not talking to your enemy
By Lee Hamilton
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007
Published: May 31 2007 18:56 | Last updated: May 31 2007 18:56

Haleh Esfandiari has been imprisoned in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison for more than 25 days. She has been refused exit from Iran for over five months. Haleh is the director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, which I head. She is a noted scholar, a cherished colleague and a beloved wife and grandmother. The Iranian government has alleged that she is an agent of “soft revolution” in Iran.

There is not a scintilla of truth to these allegations. Haleh is a scholar. She has never been a spy. The work she does at the Wilson Center is open and non-partisan, and includes a broad range of views. Her programme receives zero funding from the US government’s fund to promote democracy in Iran. She was visiting Iran – as she does twice a year – to see her frail and ailing 93-year-old mother. Her detention is an affront to the rule of law and common decency. The Wilson Centre’s message to the Iranian government is simple: let Haleh go. Let her return to her husband, her family and her work.

We have no idea why Iran is detaining Haleh, nor can we speculate about the detention of several other Iranian-Americans. Any speculation about Iran’s motives is exactly that: speculation. What we do know is that the US has no point of contact in Tehran, and knows little about what is going on within that country. We have no embassy there. We have no diplomats there. We have nobody who can negotiate on Haleh’s behalf. If we want to send a message, or if we want to inquire about Haleh’s health, the Swiss have to do it for us.

The Iraq Study Group, which I co-chaired, recommended that the US initiate a dialogue with Iran. We did not do so because we are starry-eyed about diplomacy. We have a long list of grievances with the Iranians, and surely the Iranians have their own grievances with America. We do not like their nuclear programme. We do not like their support for terrorism. We do not like it when they provide weapons and support for violent groups in Iraq. We certainly do not like it when they detain innocent Americans.

Some look at those grievances and say that we should not talk to the Iranians. Yet we have tried not talking to Iran since the end of the hostage crisis in 1981. Can anybody argue that the policy of isolation is working? While we have refused to talk, Iran has enhanced its nuclear programme, its regional power and its ties to terrorism. Iran, more than any country in the world, has been strengthened by the war in Iraq.

The Bush administration’s recent decision to initiate a dialogue with Iran, including a May 28 meeting, is a positive step forward. These talks must be sustained over a period of time, and should not be subject to preconditions. The contacts have to be at a high level. The agenda must be broadened beyond simply Iraq. We are not going to settle all of our problems with Iran in one meeting. But we are certainly not going to solve our problems with Iran by refusing to talk.

I reject the notion that simply talking to a country is some kind of reward, just as I reject the notion that not talking to a country is some kind of punishment that will make it change its behaviour. Denouncing countries and refusing to talk to them may make us feel better in the short run but it makes little sense in the long run. When we have problems with a country, we cannot just pull our diplomats out. That is when you need diplomats. To quote Yitzhak Rabin: “You don’t make peace with friends. You make it with very unsavoury enemies.”

Even if we do not achieve any agreement with Iran in the near future, there are many reasons to sustain a dialogue. When you talk, you can explain your policies, try to build trust, dispel misunderstandings, prevent inadvertent military escalation and deter certain actions by the other side. When you talk to a country such as Iran, which is having an internal struggle over the meaning and legacy of the Islamic revolution, you also collect intelligence and develop contacts – the very intelligence and contacts that we lack in Iran today, and that we lacked in Iraq before the start of the war.

When did the US become afraid to negotiate? For decades, we negotiated with the Soviets. It was through those contacts that President John F. Kennedy helped avert nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis, while still standing strong for America’s security and American values. It was through those contacts that President Ronald Reagan secured the release of dissidents and detainees, while making landmark progress on arms control. Indeed, just as he demanded, “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Mr Reagan was sending an arms negotiator to Moscow. It was those contacts that helped end the cold war without a shot being fired between Americans and Soviets.

Diplomacy is one powerful tool in America’s arsenal, and must be integrated with other tools. But we cannot solve our problems in the world through brute force, or a belief that countries will change simply because we say they should. That is precisely the logic of not talking, and it is a logic that leads to confrontation – perhaps to war. Not talking will not make Iran change its behaviour. And not talking is certainly not the optimal way to secure the release of Ms Esfandiari.

The writer is director of the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, was co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group and is a former Democratic congressman from Indiana


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