The Need to Talk with Iran

What can the United States do about Iran and its nuclear ambitions? Conceivably, it could support sanctions or even use military action. But the best tactic for the United States is to open a dialogue with Iran. Diplomacy can prevent a nuclear-armed Iran from emerging in an already turbulent Middle East.

The United States and the European Union favor placing Iran before the United Nations Security Council for possible sanctions. But sanctions are likely to raise tensions even higher between Iran and the West. The strongest diplomatic move would be for the United States, with its European allies, to negotiate with Iran on the nuclear issue.

In the past, the United States has chosen direct diplomacy in the face of danger. During the Cold War, the United States negotiated with its most potent adversary, the Soviet Union. President Eisenhower, with the leaders of France and Britain, met with the Soviets at the 1955 Geneva Conference. Before leaving, Eisenhower explained to the American people the gloomy alternative to such diplomacy: “Do we want to do nothing; do we want to sit and drift along to the inevitable end of such a contest — new tensions and then to war?”

Today, if the United States wants to avoid continued tensions and a potential war with Iran, direct negotiations must occur. The two nations have had little diplomatic contact since the 1979 hostage crisis, when Iranians seized the American embassy in Teheran. In the decades since then, Iran has been developing its nuclear technology — supposedly for peaceful energy purposes. But Iran kept some of its nuclear development secret until it was uncovered in 2002. Iran’s suspicious nuclear activity has led many to believe that the Islamic Republic has its eyes on a nuclear weapon.

Any potential United States-Iran dialogue would complement European efforts to persuade the Iranians to abandon their uranium enrichment program, which can be diverted from peaceful purposes to build a nuclear weapon. The United States can provide economic incentives in exchange for restrictions on Iran’s nuclear capability.

With the history of immense distrust between the two countries, negotiations of course will not be easy. During the Cold War, mutual distrust was a hallmark of the Soviet-American rivalry. At the 1955 Geneva Conference, President Eisenhower sought to build trust with the Soviets calling for mutual aerial inspection to prevent surprise attack. Ike’s proposal inspired a “spirit of Geneva” which later led to talks on arms control.

Those negotiations were not without frustration and disappointment. A memo by one U.S. official attending these negotiations was prefaced with the words, “The agony continues . . .” But the U.S.-Soviet dialogue helped lead to a 1963 agreement banning above-ground nuclear testing and establishing a hotline for reducing the risk of accidental nuclear war. A struggle as colossal as the Cold War was not going to be solved quickly, but small steps eventually lessened the dangers of war.

Today, the United States and Iran must make their own moves toward reducing tensions. Negotiations between the United States and Iran should not be limited to the nuclear danger. There must also be talks on security issues affecting the entire Middle East, including confidence-building measures and arms control. These are essential for eliminating the root causes of the buildup of armaments in the Middle East.

The foremost issue of Middle East security would be the defeat of the insurgency in Iraq and ensuring a stable government for that country. Testifying before the Senate in October, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice stated that the United States was considering some level of direct contact with Iran concerning security issues involving Iraq. Iran must be convinced that a stable Iraq is in its best interests. But the process of getting Iran to cooperate on securing Iraq has to start through dialogue with the United States.

There are no guarantees that the hard-line government in Teheran will soften its stance and participate in such talks. But the United States must leave no stone unturned in the search for peace. Failure to extend the olive branch of peace will risk putting future generations of Iranians and Americans on the path to war.

William Lambers is an author and historian who partnered with the World Food Programme on the book “Ending World Hunger: School Lunches for Kids Around the World” (2009).