Commentary | U.S. diplomatic talks with Iran

Point / Counterpoint

Obama’s chats with Iran can make meaningful headway

Steve Aylward


President Bush’s policy on diplomacy with Iran has been to make cessation of Iran’s nuclear program a precondition for presidential talks. This policy has clearly failed to contain the threat of a nuclear Iran.

A September 15 report from the International Atomic Energy Agency indicated that by January, Tehran’s nuclear program will likely have the capacity to create sufficient weapons-grade uranium for a bomb in a matter of months. Senator Obama proposes a departure from this course of action when he states, “I would be willing to meet with Iranian leaders if we have done sufficient preparations for that meeting.” In other words, Obama would not make all of the benefits of direct negotiations contingent upon fulfillment of just one criterion.

The provision for “preparations” means that such talks would occur in circumstances in which the U.S. believes it could make meaningful headway. Obama is not naively suggesting that the U.S. should open talks for their own sake, but rather that where the possibility for advancing U.S. interests exists, they should not be precluded by any single issue.

The policy of isolating Iran diplomatically is largely of symbolic value, and does not generate any progress toward finding solutions to problems like nuclear proliferation. It indirectly benefits Iran because it cannot set the sorts of deadlines and requirements that parties undertake in negotiations. The extra time gained by this policy is useful to Iran, as it continues to research and develop nuclear arms. The only foreign policy tool available to the U.S. without opening negotiations is the threat of military attack, which apart from not being very credible at the moment, is precisely what creates such a strong incentive for Iran to pursue a nuclear weapon in the first place. Iran wants the bomb because it feels that its existence is not secure, not least because the U.S. will not recognize its government as legitimate by engaging it in direct talks.

In negotiating directly with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – or more likely Khomeini, who is actually in charge of foreign policy in Iran – the U.S. might be seen to be appeasing Iran. But this perception could be offset by raising pressures in other ways, such as increasing economic sanctions. It might also be seen to support Ahmadinejad, but this oversimplifies things. By treating Iran as an evil country that it won’t even talk to, the U.S. legitimizes Iranian hardliners, whose outrageous rhetoric is predicated on America being the archnemesis imperial oppressor. If Iran engages in upper-level talks with the U.S., it becomes more difficult to paint the U.S. as an unknown evil. By engaging in such talks, the U.S. can make gains in the propaganda war it is currently losing so badly.

Strategic decisions are plagued by a lack of perfect information about competing intentions. Direct negotiations serve as an important means of reducing this uncertainty, by building personal relationships, combating insular interpretations of opposing interests, and generally building confidence. It was, for example, direct negotiations with Nikita Krushchev, former First Secretary of the Soviet Union, that ultimately led to the removal of nuclear missiles from Cuba. The threat presented by Iran achieving a nuclear weapon makes it clear that such avenues are critical for reducing tension in crisis situations which could quite conceivably arise, but also for rationalizing outcomes in other issues in which both countries have overlapping interests, for example, the refugee flows from Iraq. It is only by directly engaging in presidential talks without preconditions that all of these benefits can be achieved.

Steve Aylward is a U3 Philosophy & Political Science student.

The U.S. shouldn’t grant high-level talks with rogue nations

Sean Hayward and Josh Stark


Barack Obama thinks that government officials should engage in unconditional talks with hostile regimes, such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Iran. Whether this was a slip of the tongue that had to be retroactively defended or a real policy decision, it is not a productive strategy for America or for the people of Iran – or any other country whose ruling regime is hostile to the U.S. John McCain, to his credit, does not favour unconditional talks with hostile regimes.

First is the problem of defining “without preconditions.” Does it force the next American administration to sit down with any leader, at any time, in any venue? Obama is not clear on this issue. When Nixon sat down with Mao after the Soviet-Sino split, there were preconditions that ensured a favourable outcome for the United States. Henry Kissinger, a man that Obama often mentions, spent months planning the event to make sure that his president would not be embarrassed or be used as propaganda. Stating that the American administration will meet leaders who may represent a real threat to America “without preconditions” creates a situation with an uncertain outcome with no apparent benefit.

Engaging in these talks would also legitimize rogue states to the international community. Without setting any preconditions, these high-level talks can only be about appearance. Two heads of state are not going to hammer out real policy in a meeting that lasts only a few hours. However, such a meeting will attract hours upon hours of news coverage. Leaders of rogue states crave the attention that dialogue with high-ranking American officials offers. Ahmadinejad can easily seem docile at a press conference while masking his true ambitions. He did this when he wrote a timid letter to George Bush before the Iraq War. Offering these high-level talks effectively gives these leaders a pulpit from which they can sell themselves to a western audience. If these regimes are hostile to the U.S., offering such an opportunity is not in America’s interests.

Further, this dialogue is used as propaganda in tyrannical states. These leaders, such as Ahmadinejad, often try to deflect domestic criticism by playing up an outside threat – such as the U.S. or Israel. If offered high-level talks with the U.S., Ahmadinejad would sell it to his domestic audience as an example of his ability to stand up to the West – regardless of what the actual content of the meeting would be. If the U.S. truly wants a liberal reformist in power in Iran – perhaps through the re-election of Mohammad Khatami – it shouldn’t give Ahmadinejad an opportunity to shore up domestic support.

These problems make it very difficult to apply real pressure on countries like Iran, and would allow Ahmadinejad and others to strengthen their positions, making it hard for the international community to commit to sanctions. No American president, even one who thinks he is the prophet for this age, can talk down these terrorist regimes. If enemies of America want to engage in dialogue, they must accept conditions and improve the situation for their citizens. High-level talks should be used as a carrot, not offered freely.

Josh Stark is a U3 IDS & Philosophy student, Sean Hayward is a U2 History & Political Theory.

Steve, Sean, and Josh are members of the McGill Debating Union. Debaters are often asked to defend positions which may not be their own, meaning the arguments above do not necessarily represent the personal opinions of the authors. Tonight, the Debating Union is hosting “You Decide,” an event presenting the policy opinions of both campaigns in a series of debates at 6 p.m. in the Lev Bukhman room.