How do you talk to Iran?
The Democrats in the new Congress hold that not talking to your potential enemies is counter-productive. Nancy Pelosi is in Syria doing just that. Is there anything to be learned from the twelve-day UK-Iranian dispute over fifteen British naval personnel about how to talk to the potentially, more difficult Iran?
President Ahmedinejad brought to an end the ‘crisis’ between the UK and Iran by announcing, in what is being seen by the BBC as a public-relations victory, that the British naval personnel were to be immediately pardoned and released. Ahmedinejad’s use of language side-steps the issue of responsibility, legality and location of the incident (held by the British and by the first Iranian announcement to be inside Iraqi waters). There is still a lingering dislike for Britain and of its past interventions in the internal history of Iran and the invasion of Iraq as America’s ally has added to that dislike. The demonstration outside the British Embassy, during the week, was however comparatively small-scale and relatively easily contained by Iranian security police. Ahmedinejad is being credited with a propaganda victory and with the wisdom to know when enough had been extracted from the situation without pushing it to crisis point. He described the release as an ‘Easter’ gift, in the context of the Prophet’s birthday, Easter and Passover, to the British people. This may have been also an indirect reference to the Pope’s appeal for the release of the captives. Officials, in an effort to maintain the public relations initiative, have repeated that the release was a gift and nothing whatsoever to do with British diplomacy.
What did the British government do? By all accounts, the UK government did relatively little. Its account of the taking of the sailors differs in details from that of the Iranians. The Iranian announcement came ‘out of the blue’ to British officials, according to the BBC. Tony Blair said in Downing Street that ‘throughout we have taken a measured approach – firm but calm, not negotiating but not confronting either’. The British complained to the United Nations and looked for support from other European countries. Although the British initially made a complaint about the display of the captives, it was decided after the first reaction, in London, to play it coolly. This enabled Ahmedinijad, as it turned out, to mirror the position taken by London. ‘From the beginning, I didn’t want to have any confrontation’ he said during the speech that announced the sailors’ release.
How did the release come about? It seems to have come essentially from the internal dynamics of the Iranian government. There was little further that the Iranians could have got from holding the captives. The British claimed that they did not ‘negotiate’ and that they made no ‘linkages’ to any other issue between Iran and the West though they may have also contacted the Syrians and engaged them too in diplomacy. The Economist suggests that the capture was the initiative of Pasdaran zealots in a replay of actions in 2004 and one taken without any longer-term or strategic political objective in mind. What happened thereafter was a gradual re-assertion of the authority of the more cautious branch of Iranian politicians. It was the intervention of Ali Larijani, the nuclear developments negotiator, which seems to have turned events around. Larijani is charged with negotiating with the West and any situation likely to make his work more difficult would be best avoided. Once he showed his hand, through direct and private contact with the media, the British contacted him directly. The speed of subsequent events took everyone by surprise.
So how do you talk to Iran? There must first be a desire to talk. This is the stand being taken by Democrats in Congress. Talk to your foes or else risk it all getting much worse. Then it is probably best not to fall into the trap of appearing arrogant. Arrogance or anything that can be read as arrogance only reinforces old stereotypes and there is a ready popular audience for such stereotypes. Thirdly, it may be a good idea to recognize that the government process in Iran is split between radicals and those more willing to accommodate themselves to the established ways of the world. It is not easy for outsiders to play one faction off against the other. Playing an engaged but waiting game may also be worthwhile. Ranting seems wrong-headed and refusing to speak is counter-productive. What is probably best of all is discussion in all sorts of issues across the spectrum of interests whilst being aware of, and sensitive to the fact that, Iran’s internal politics are fraught. The Economist holds that the talking to the West, especially the United States ‘might scare the mullahs more than sanctions’ (Economist, 4th April, 2007).