The US record in dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions includes name-calling, demonization, funding of opposition groups, and support for Israel’s war against what it calls Iran’s proxy army, the Lebanese Hezbollah. Diplomatic negotiations? “Never,” says Bush. And the record of the past five years is discouraging.
Urged by Iran’s President Khatami, the United Nations named 2001 the “Year of Dialogue of Civilizations.” Since Iran was then enjoying good relations with everyone but Israel and the United States, Khatami’s diplomatic objective was clear. So was the cold shoulder his initiative got from the United States.
Four months after 9/11, President Bush named Iran, one of the few Muslim countries to commiserate with America’s pain, part of the “Axis of Evil.” Iran’s offer of help against al-Qaeda counted for nothing as the Bush administration demonized Khatami’s liberal regime as a supporter of terrorism and a potential nuclear danger to Americans.
An Iranian letter sent through the Swiss Embassy in May 2003 proposed ending the diplomatic standoff and restarting relations on the basis of mutual respect. Again, there was no American response, or even acknowledgement that the letter had been received.
Once the "weapons of mass destruction justification" for the ill-conceived invasion of Iraq collapsed, the Bush-Cheney team intimated that a diplomatic solution might be preferable in the case of Iran. But the administration then shunned negotiations between EU and Iranian diplomats while endlessly repeating its condemnation of the Iranian regime in speeches and interviews. A complete halt to the Iranian nuclear program was set forth as a precondition rather than an objective of negotiations. During Khatami’s presidency, the Iranian government had responded to UN concerns by making a positive diplomatic gesture, temporarily suspending its nuclear program. This had gained Iran nothing. Thus President Ahmadinejad, taking office in 2005, took further suspensions as a precondition for negotiations off the table.
In February 2006, the US Congress allocated $85 million for a propaganda campaign against the Islamic Republic of Iran to help build a dissident network.
In April, Seymour Hersh wrote an article in the New Yorker about US plans for a military strike against Iran. Current and former American military and intelligence officials were quoted as saying that some planners even visualized using nuclear weapons.
In May, President Ahmadinejad wrote an 18-page letter to President Bush, clearly signaling his willingness for direct negotiations. The letter was completely ignored.
On July 12, the Israeli government started bombing Lebanon claiming it was just trying to retrieve two captured soldiers, yet earlier Hezbollah attacks of a similar kind had resulted not in war, but in negotiated prisoner exchanges. The US support for the Israeli bombing, and stalling in the UN to gain more time for Israel's ongoing assaults, sent a clear message that the war against Hezbollah was a proxy war against Iran.
Finally, at the end of September, when EU members were claiming progress in their negotiations with Iran, Congress passed the Iran Freedom Act. This renewal of the 1995 Iran-Libya Sanctions Act was described by Representative Dennis Kucinich, who voted against it, as designed to fund media propaganda and thereby lay the groundwork for war.
Given this record, Iran has come to understand that compliance with EU requests for suspending nuclear research will never defuse American hostility. In fact, suspending uranium enrichment as a precondition for negotiations would make Iran militarily vulnerable. It would entitle international inspectors to conduct an intrusive search throughout the country, a deliberate humiliation and clear violation of sovereignty. And via the inspectors it could provide a complete assessment of Iran’s missile defense system to American war planners. This is the pattern of events that occurred in Iraq prior to the current war.
Will Iran find itself in coming months in the same situation Iraq faced on March 19, 2003? Ahmadinejad’s administration knows that as long as the United States does not have definite intelligence on the extent of Iran’s nuclear program, dodging an American attack might be possible. What he does not know, after repeated attempts, is how to bring the US administration to the negotiating table. Perhaps no one except the American public can achieve this.
The outlook for negotiations is poor, but without negotiations, another war in the region seems inevitable.
Omid Mohseni is an Iranian-American scholar and writer who speaks on Iran-US relations.