Should You Negotiate with an Enemy?

Multilateral negotiations between Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, the United States and Iran took place yesterday in Geneva.  American involvement in the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program mark a fundamental shift in US foreign policy.  Diplomatic relations between Iran and the United States were severed shortly after the seizure of the American embassy in Tehran following the Iranian Revolution in 1979.  Although the United States offered military support to Iran at different points during the eight year Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), the two countries have had generally had poor relations since 1979. 

Speaking before the Israeli Knesset in May, President Bush cautioned against the “false hope of appeasement.”  At the time, the remark was widely interpreted as a swipe against Barack Obama, who had previously signaled his willingness to engage in diplomatic negotiations with Iran.  It also seemed to be an affirmation of Bush’s aggressive stance towards the “axis of evil.”

Now, by sending William Burns, the third highest official in the State Department, to meet with Iran, the administration is signaling a dramatic policy reversal.  Burns has proposed a “freeze-for-freeze” strategy under which Iran would suspend its nuclear program in exchange for an agreement not to expand international sanctions already imposed on Iran.  This agreement would then form the basis of continued negotiations involving the use of civilian nuclear power in Iran and the termination of sanctions already imposed on the country. 

The proposal, which the administration has insisted is good for only two weeks, marks an opportunity to move forward on the Iranian nuclear question.  But can international diplomacy work?  If our efforts in Iraq have taught us anything, it’s that regime change and policy change brought through force are always more difficult, more expensive, and less effective than anticipated.  Reagan negotiated with the Soviet Union; Nixon negotiated with China.  Neither was guilty of “the false hope of appeasement.”  Negotiations can be effective in achieving foreign policy objectives.  But will diplomacy work with Iran?  Perhaps it’s too early to tell.  But attempting to resolve international crises through diplomacy certainly seems like a logical first step.

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