Posted by: sean | September 23, 2006

Talking to Iran

Roger Cohen — responding to the outrage that came with the decision by Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, to invite Ahmadinejad to speak — argues, as I have for a while, that it is time to talk to Iran.

At some point these past few years, diplomacy went out of fashion. I’m not sure precisely when, but all the signs are that it’s time for a rethink. The world needs a bout of bridge-building.

…Haass, the president of the council, is unrepentant. “I don’t see diplomacy or talking as a favor or an endorsement or a gift,” he said. “To me, it’s a tool, and I’m confident that if used right, it can advance our interests.”

He continued: “The United States gets itself in trouble when it limits its options and approaches diplomacy as a value judgment. It’s not obvious to me, looking at the last 50 or 60 years, that we paid a price for talking to the Soviets. At the end of all the talking, we won the Cold War.”

This is in strong contrast to the Israeli government’s reaction, summed up in this little pearl found in Israeli ambassador to the US Daniel Ayalon’s to Haass letter denouncing the event:

Some of those upset with the council’s decision have compared it to hypothetically inviting Hitler to a meeting in the 1930’s. In fact, meeting with Ahmadinejad is worse: Hitler did not openly call for genocide in the 1930’s, and today we have the lessons of the 1930’s to guide us. Foremost among those lessons is that appeasing fanatics like Hitler and granting them legitimacy leads to genocide and war.

I’ve said it before, but actual diplomacy and negotiation means talking to people you don’t like. Only talking to those who agree with you and labelling others as evil, which is what the US does in the Middle East, is the opposite of diplomacy.

When Bush sets up a dichotomy of good and evil, or with us or against us, he’s offering Ahmedinejad and Chavez a sympathetic audience on a silver platter.



  1. haha.. yep, I’ll NEVER forget Chavez’s theatricity at the UN General Assembly Meeting. What a performance! I loved how he first smelled the podium and then announced that he “could still smell the sulfur” from the entrails of the devil (George Bush). I also found it amazing that he advertised to the world Noam Chomsky’s “Hegemony or Survival” book in the Spanish translation.

    As far as Ahmindjead, I’m not exactly sure if negotiation is the right route here. A key to negotiation, in my opinion, requires the convergence of interests. Ahmindjead clearly wants to develop Iran as the new nuclear power in the Middle East. It is in a sense an all-or-nothing proposition. If there’s any way to moderate such a proposition, then I’m all ears.

    In the other side of the coin, history has shown that *any* isolated country within the international system *always* behave unilaterally, for better or worse. In such situations, it’s been nigh-impossible to engage in negotiations. (Take the US, for example).

    Still, I sympathize with your understanding that all this ideological gibberish of designating him as the “devil” or a “Hitler” does not allow for negotiation or diplomacy in the first place.

    Yet, if there’s room for convergence, I guess I’m up for it. As for me, I can never forget the time when I saw ex-president Khatami speak at Harvard the other month. When asked “Do you find it wrong that Iran executes homosexuals?” Khatami, in response: “No matter. Such an issue is still openly *debated* in our *democracy*”


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