Tuesday, October 23, 2007

How the U.S. Helped Sink Larijani

Editor's Note: This is Barbara Slavin's first post with the Intrepid Liberal Journal. She is a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and author of "Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S. and the Twisted Path to Confrontation." Barbara has also covered the Middle East for over twenty-years as a reporter, most recently as a senior diplomatic corresspondent with USA Today. I'm most gratified at Barbara's willingness to share her unique perspective. The views expressed here are her own.

Bush administration officials often say they don't understand the Iranian government. They have proven this time and time again by undermining those mostly likely to negotiate crucial differences with the United States. Now the administration appears to have lost yet another opportunity to slow Iran's march to nuclear power and its efforts to play the spoiler in the Middle East.

The loss this time involves Ali Larijani, a red-bearded intellectual who styles himself Iran's Henry Kissinger. A conservative who ran for president and lost to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, Larijani got the consolation prize of chief nuclear negotiator and secretary of Iran's national security council. This weekend, Larijani resigned from the negotiator post. His replacement: an obscure deputy foreign minister, Saeed Jalili, who is said to be an ally of Ahmadinejad.

Despite a reputation as a hardliner, Larijani began reaching out to the United States soon after Iranian elections in 2005. In an interview he gave me in Tehran in February 2006, Larijani praised his U.S. counterpart, Stephen Hadley, as a "logical thinker" and said "there is no limitation on our side" to negotiations with the United States.

Larijani authorized a deputy, Mohammad Javad Jaffari, to ask for backchannel talks with Hadley or a designated emissary. When the White House did not respond, Larijani publicly on March 16, 2006, accepted a prior U.S. offer for talks limited to the situation in Iraq. A week later, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei endorsed the proposal -- a dramatic step for someone who had up until then threatened those who publicly advocated talks with the United States as traitors. An Iranian website close to the conservative leadership, Baztab, announced that the Iranians had put together a high-level delegation and that talks would begin in Baghdad on April 9. But the Bush administration got cold feet. Its refusal to meet undermined Larijani within the Iranian power structure and humiliated Khamenei. The chief beneficiary was Ahmadinejad.

The United States finally agreed to enter nuclear negotiations at the end of May 2006 but only if Iran would suspend its efforts to enrich uranium and as part of talks including Britain, Germany, France and the European Union. (Larijani did take part in a half dozen subsequent meetings with EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana but without success.) Direct U.S.-Iran talks about Iraq did not take place until May of this year. Delay on both fronts has been costly: Despite a U.S.-driven campaign of pressure and sanctions, Iran-backed attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq have escalated and Iran is much closer to the ability to make nuclear bombs. President Bush said last week an Iran with nuclear weapons would usher in "World War III."

A U.S. decision to talk to Iran unconditionally in 2006 might not have stemmed this escalation. But it is impossible to know -- just as it is impossible to say what would have happened had the Bush administration not put Iran on an "axis of evil" in 2002 or accepted an offer for comprehensive negotiations with the government of Ahmadinejad's predecessor, Mohammad Khatami, in May 2003.

Administration officials argue that U.N. and other sanctions are exacerbating divisions within the Iranian regime and that Iran will eventually knuckle under to pressure. Divisions certainly are increasing in Tehran but the "reasonable people," as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice likes to call them, are still not getting their way. The victors so far are those like Ahmadinejad who argue that the best way to earn U.S. respect and recognition is to confront Americans in Iraq and elsewhere and gain the capacity to build nuclear bombs as soon as possible.

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