Political Turmoil In Iran Complicates U.S. Diplomacy

Wide: Iranian hard-line students burn U.S. and British flags, June 2009 i i

hide captionIranian hard-line students burn U.S. and British flags on June 23, 2009, during a protest outside the British Embassy in Tehran after the country's disputed presidential elections. The conservative incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was re-elected.

AFP/Getty Images
Wide: Iranian hard-line students burn U.S. and British flags, June 2009

Iranian hard-line students burn U.S. and British flags on June 23, 2009, during a protest outside the British Embassy in Tehran after the country's disputed presidential elections. The conservative incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was re-elected.

AFP/Getty Images

Iran's leaders say the country's nuclear program exists only for the purpose of generating electricity. Western intelligence agencies say the Islamic republic aims to produce nuclear weapons and intimidate its neighbors. How close is Iran to getting the bomb? How might it be stopped? And what are the implications for the United States and the rest of the world if Iran succeeds? This week, NPR looks at Iran and its suspected nuclear weapons programs in a series.

The disputed elections and crackdown on opposition figures in Iran this summer are complicating the Obama administration's diplomatic outreach to the country.

President Obama has said he wants to see if diplomacy can work to keep Iran's nuclear program in check. Now, even those who promote the idea of engagement are wondering how the United States can use diplomacy to deal with an Iran in political turmoil.

Because the U.S. has not had diplomatic relations with Tehran since 1980, it is hard to find U.S. officials who have actually negotiated with Iranians.

John Limbert had his own unhappy experience: He was a political officer in Tehran in 1979, when Iranian students stormed the U.S. Embassy and took him and his colleagues hostage.

"That is one of the days when you are not at the negotiating table, because we were holding such a weak hand, and the people on the other side — that is, students attacking the embassy — had no reason to negotiate," Limbert recalls.

Tone, Timing Are Key

Now retired from the State Department, Limbert is the author of Negotiating with Iran: Wrestling the Ghosts of History. He says 30 years of trading slogans has not resulted in progress for either side.

So when the Obama administration came in talking about engagement, Limbert saw it as a good way to knock Tehran off balance. His advice? Keep at it.

"Keep using the same tone. Tone is very important. It creates a dilemma, because it is very difficult to maintain this image of hostility and enmity from the United States when the talk is of friendship and engagement and dealing as equals," Limbert says.

However, with Iranian opposition figures facing what many describe as show trials, it is difficult for the Obama administration to keep its hand outstretched.

"The timing of diplomacy is absolutely essential," says Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council, "and the time is not now."

Parsi favors diplomacy, but is calling for a tactical pause.

"We have to take a pause and stand back and let there be greater political clarity on the Iranian side. Under these circumstances — in which the [government of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad] and the system as a whole essentially lacks stability, lacks legitimacy internally — I don't believe the Iranians will be able to come to the table and actually negotiate," he says.

Parsi says the Obama administration won't want to do anything to hurt the chances of the opposition movement.

Divided Iranian Leadership A Fallacy?

But Hillary Mann Leverett, the former director of Iran and Persian Gulf affairs at the National Security Council under President George W. Bush, says the U.S. needs to forget about finding moderates in Tehran.

"Our attempts to play that game in Iranian politics has always failed, it has always backfired. And I think it is a mistake to do that today. I think we need to be dealing with the government as it is constituted," she says.

Leverett is one of the rare former officials who has actually negotiated with Iranians about how to cooperate in Afghanistan and in dealing with al-Qaida.

"The Iranians I dealt with were authoritative, spoke for the government even though they represented different ministries and different power centers within the government. They were able to deliver not everything we asked for, but a lot of what we asked for. And so this idea that Iran is too divided or is even too depraved to negotiate with the U.S. is not something I experienced at all in the two years of negotiating with them," she says.

Worries About Undermining U.S. Efforts

Leverett thinks the Obama administration is already setting itself up for failure by setting deadlines and talking about crippling sanctions — as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has done.

"We clearly see the threat that Iran poses, not only on its own and its attitude towards neighbors, as well as, unfortunately, its own people, but the possibility — I would say probability — that Iran becoming a nuclear weapons state would kick off a nuclear arms race in the Middle East," Clinton told NPR in July.

Clinton is trying to get China and others on board for tough sanctions. There is talk of cutting gasoline supplies to Iran, but Parsi, the analyst with the National Iranian American Council, thinks that could backfire — turning America into the boogeyman once again.

"The more you talk about what happens after diplomacy if it fails, the more you talk about your Plan B, the more you undermine your Plan A," he says.

More At Stake Than Nuclear Arms

Parsi is also worried that the U.S. is focusing solely on the nuclear issue. Leverett, the former Bush official, says it's a fool's errand to try to deal with that issue in isolation when there are other concerns — such as Iran's influence in Iraq and Afghanistan, and its relations with militant groups.

Iranian leaders "will require security guarantees to constrain their nuclear program. We, the United States, cannot offer them security guarantees as long as they have a relationship with any of these groups — Hamas [in the Gaza Strip], Hezbollah [in Lebanon] or the Sadrists in Iraq — so it really has to be done as a package," she says.

Leverett is calling for something akin to the Nixon-era rapprochement with China. But others say the Obama administration will have to wait and see how the political situation in Iran plays out first.

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