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Talking Iran

Why the Iran engagement debate matters.

12:00 AM, Jun 5, 2008 • By JONATHAN SCHANZER
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THE DEBATE CONTINUES over the benefits of engaging with the Islamic Republic of Iran, a state that has been dedicated to Islamist terrorism since 1979. The notion of a productive meeting with Iranian leaders is fantasy. However, the debate is important because it reveals how the proponents of engagement fail to understand the realities in Iran.

Among those who advocate engagement with Iran, the prevailing argument is that a meeting with Iran would not necessarily have to include Iran's current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Susan Rice, a former assistant secretary of state for African Affairs, insists that a meeting should take place with "the appropriate Iranian leaders." She suggests that Ahmadinejad may be "long gone" before such a meeting ever takes place.

This assumes that Ahmadinejad is the primary problem, and ignores the fact that the last four presidents of Iran have supported the revolutionary goals of the Islamic Republic:

Ali Khameini was president from 1981 to 1989 then succeeded Khomeini as supreme leader. He delivered fiery anti-West sermons before large crowds that famously interrupted him chanting "death to America." As the New York Times notes, "he usually spoke with a rifle in his hand, jabbing its muzzle into the air to make his points as he castigated 'the Great Satan, America.'"

Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, president from 1989 to 1997, a man seen by some as a reformer, was indicted along with the Hezbollah chief Imad Mughniyah by an Argentine judge for the bombing of a Jewish community center that killed 85 people.

Ali Khatami, also hailed as a reformer during his tenure (1997-2005), ran a regime with numerous financial ties to Hezbollah and Hamas, conducted surveillance of U.S. military and diplomatic installations abroad, and developed South America's tri-border area into a terrorist haven.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is now under fire for his determination to move forward with Iran's nuclear program, not to mention remarks he made denying the holocaust and calling for Israel to be wiped from the map. But is he that much worse than his predecessors?

Susan Rice and others who advocate negotiations with Iran ignore the immutable fact that Iranian presidents are chosen by the Iranian political system because of their anti-Western principles. Of course, other engagement advocates argue that America should conduct a dialogue with Iran, but not with its president. Their point is that Ahmadinejad is not the most powerful person in Iran.

This is correct. Ahmadinejad may be the most powerful elected official, but the supreme guide, a position currently held by the aforementioned Ali Khameini, is typically seen as Iran's most powerful person. Another important position is the chairman of the Expediency Council, currently held by the aforementioned Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

In 2001, Rafsanjani stated that the Muslim world should use nuclear weapons against the Jewish state. And Khameini calls Israel a "cancerous tumor of a state that should be removed." The notion that one could reason with any of these leaders ignores the reality that the Iranian regime must first reform if we are ever to find suitable interlocutors.

Finally, although meeting with U.S. officials would provide a measure of unearned legitimacy, it is doubtful that Iranian leaders would seek to meet with Americans unless they believed U.S. policies would change for their benefit.

Broadly speaking, Iran wants one of three things: a precipitous withdrawal from Iraq, a draw-down in support for Israel, and/or the cessation of sanctions against Iran, put in place because of Tehran's support to terrorist groups and weapons of mass destruction programs. Do we want Iran's leaders to believe that any of these issues are on the table for negotiation?

The majority of Americans do not wish to end a just war before it is won. Nor do they seek to turn its back on long-standing allies in a strategically important region. Nor, for that matter, would Americans agree to lift sanctions without first receiving important concessions (think Libya's termination of its WMD program in 2003).

Thus, unlike other hair-splitting political debates, the debate over whether there should be direct meetings with Iranian leaders is important. It exposes the flawed arguments of those who insist that dialogue would bear fruit.

Jonathan Schanzer, a former Treasury intelligence analyst, is director of policy for the Jewish Policy Center and editor of inFocus Quarterly. He is author of the forthcoming book Hamas vs Fatah: The Struggle for Palestine (Palgrave, Nov. 2008).