Dr. Fatemeh Haghighatjoo

Expediting US talks with Iran

By Dr. Fatemeh Haghighatjoo
March 12, 2009
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WHILE IT IS likely that Iran-US talks over Iran's nuclear development program will commence without preconditions, as President Obama has promised, the question is when. It should be soon.

Iran is eager to enter negotiations that would address a diverse range of both nations' interests and would be comprehensive - including Iran's nuclear development program and the Middle East peace process.

To be constructive and progressive, however, any negotiation should start with the current government, and that means before the June presidential election in Iran. If President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is not reelected, and a reformist candidate such as former president Mohammad Khatami or former speaker of Parliament Medhi Karoubi wins the election, the chance of starting comprehensive negotiations would be unlikely. The new president's opposition, including those in the current government, could ruin negotiations. Furthermore, the present government has the ability to control hard-liners who disagree with any talks with the United States.

The reformist government of Khatemi wanted to talk with the United States in 2000-2004, and even the Parliament's vice-speaker said it could negotiate at the parliamentary level. Due to anti-reformist pressure, however, Khatami did not dare to face and shake hands with President Clinton in the UN's opening assembly in 2000. I asked him why he did not take this opportunity, and he said, laughing, that he was afraid of being executed. Although he was kidding, he predicted that he would be faced with a new crisis without getting a benefit from meeting Clinton, a benefit such as direct negotiations between the two countries.

Today, the impact of the worldwide economic recession on Iran makes the government ready to negotiate. Yet even if talks were to begin now, it would not significantly increase Ahmadinejad's chances of reelection, because of the internal and economic problems resulting from his mismanagement.

Criticism of his administration comes not just from reformist groups, but also from some grand ayatollahs who disagree with his social, economic, and cultural policies. They criticize the president's economic program, inflation, and the increasing cost of living. This pervasive criticism means that Ahmadinejad will be judged at the polls on his domestic policy, not by his contacts with the new American president.

Initiating constructive talks at any level needs preparation on both sides, including diplomatic exchanges that demonstrate mutual respect, mutual understanding, and, later, mutual trust. The most important value to start the talks is respect.

In particular, US policy makers should not try to humiliate Iran. One result of the American presidential election is increased hope inside Iran among a variety of groups. However, some of Obama's remarks on Iran have disappointed many political leaders, including Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president, and Ali Larijani, the speaker of Parliament.

Obama has said that "we need to ratchet up tough but direct diplomacy with Iran" and that he will "get tough" with Iran on the nuclear issue and Tehran's support for Hamas and Hezbollah. He has also used the phrase, "carrots and sticks," which many Iranians worldwide consider insulting to a 3,000-year-old civilization, as if it's a mule to be manhandled by a foreign power.

Rafsanjani said that "such language is not appropriate for Obama. Iran wants neither US encouragement nor its punishment." Larijani said that "these comments resemble those of old American cowboys. If you have something to say about [Iran's] nuclear issue, just say so. Why wave a stick?" All attempts to pursue talks, whether at the highest level, through legislative bodies, or other diplomatic channels, will be influenced by the rhetoric of Obama and his aides.

Negotiations could halt Iran's nuclear enrichment in a reasonable time frame, if the bargaining is respectful and inclusive of Iran's national interests. But the respect and the talks need to start soon.

Dr. Fatemeh Haghighatjoo was a member of Iran's Parliament from 2000 to 2004. She is a visiting scholar at the University of Massachusetts-Boston.

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