There were high expectations after President Obama and Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, talked on the phone in late September. Those hoping for a diplomatic resolution to the nuclear standoff were excited that a breakthrough was imminent; meanwhile, some American allies, like Israel and Saudi Arabia, expressed deep skepticism over a potential American rapprochement with Iran.
No breakthrough was achieved when American and Iranian officials met for negotiations last month, but few observers expected one. Later this week, another round of talks is scheduled to begin in Geneva.
The window for achieving a diplomatic solution to the nuclear crisis is not open-ended. Both Mr. Obama and Mr. Rouhani face domestic pressures — from skeptical members of Congress in Washington and anti-American hard-liners in Tehran.
Nevertheless, despite three decades of frosty relations and although most Americans may be unaware of it, talks with Iran have succeeded in the past — and they can succeed again.
Immediately after 9/11, while serving in the State Department, I sat down with Iranian diplomats to discuss next steps in Afghanistan. Back then, we had a common enemy, the Taliban and its Al Qaeda associates, and both governments thought it was worth exploring whether we could cooperate.
The Iranians were constructive, pragmatic and focused, at one point they even produced an extremely valuable map showing the Taliban’s order of battle just before American military action began.
They were also strong proponents of taking action in Afghanistan. We met through the remaining months of 2001 in different locations, and Iranian-American agreement at the Bonn Conference on Afghanistan was central to establishing the Afghan Interim Authority, headed by Hamid Karzai, now the president of Afghanistan.
I continued to hold talks with the Iranians in Kabul when I was sent to reopen the United States Embassy there. We forged agreements on various security issues and coordinated approaches to reconstruction. And then, suddenly, it all came to an end when President George W. Bush gave his famous “Axis of Evil” speech in early 2002. The Iranian leadership concluded that in spite of their cooperation with the American war effort, the United States remained implacably hostile to the Islamic Republic.
Real cooperation effectively ceased after the speech and the costs were immediate. At the time, we were in the process of negotiating the transfer of the notorious Afghan warlord, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, from Iranian house arrest to Afghan custody and ultimately to American control. Instead, the Iranians facilitated his covert entry into Afghanistan where he remains at large, launching attacks on coalition and Afghan targets.
I had another set of negotiations with Iranian diplomats when I was ambassador to Iraq in 2007. The goal was to persuade Iran to cease supporting groups like Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi army, a Shiite militia that was targeting the Iraqi government and coalition forces. Unlike the Afghan negotiations, these talks took place in the full glare of the media, rendering the give-and-take of effective diplomacy impossible. While the negotiations accomplished nothing, they may have convinced Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki that his only option for dealing with the militias was military force. He launched a military operation against them in April 2008. In fighting that extended from Baghdad to Basra, the government eventually prevailed, with substantial coalition support.
The Afghan experience demonstrates that diplomatic progress between the United States and Iran is possible. It is certainly not guaranteed, but a solid diplomatic solution is always better than the alternatives.
The government of the Islamic Republic is clearly an adversary, but it is also a rational actor. And, like all governments, it is capable of being pragmatic and flexible when it is in its interest to do so. There is a chance that the Obama administration can replicate past successes if it applies four lessons from the 2001 talks.
First, American negotiators must understand that serious progress is likely to come only in direct talks between the United States and Iran. The involvement of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany should continue, but the heavy lifting will have to be done by the two central actors.
Second, the substance of the talks must be closely held. Revealing the details too soon will give ammunition to those who oppose the talks and limit the flexibility of the negotiators.
Third, America should be ready to introduce other issues beyond the nuclear file. Progress in one area can build confidence and facilitate progress in others. I mentioned this in a discussion with Iranian leaders in New York last month and they seemed receptive, mentioning Afghanistan and Syria as possibilities.
Finally, the United States must make clear that we do not seek to overthrow the Iranian regime. Iranian paranoia on this issue is virtually limitless and understandably so. In 1953, the American and British intelligence services ousted a democratically elected Iranian prime minister, an episode that very few Americans remember and no Iranian will ever forget.
The outlines of a deal are already clear. Iran wants sanctions lifted and an end to its isolation while the international community wants clear, continuous and unambiguous verification that Iran’s nuclear energy program will never be weaponized. The Iranian leaders I met in New York argued that a nuclear weapon would actually degrade Iran’s security because it would spark a destabilizing cascade of proliferation among its Arab neighbors. They insisted that Iran wants security and stability in the region, not a nuclear arms race.
That is encouraging talk, but the Iranians will have to move first. There can be no question of easing American sanctions until Iran has demonstrated its seriousness in confining any nuclear program to peaceful purposes.
Ryan C. Crocker, a former United States ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq, is dean of the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A & M.