In a recent edition of the New York Times, Op-ed columnist Roger Cohen has made a welcome contribution to the public discourse on how US-Iranian relations might be better managed by the Obama Administration (see Roger Cohen, "Reading Khamenei in Tehran", New York Times, 19 February 2009). Welcome because it is underpinned by the premises that neither supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamene'i nor the Iran he leads is irrational, that Iran has identifiable national interests for the advancement of which it would be prepared to negotiate, and that there is an interest in better relations at the highest level of the Iranian leadership - and welcome because it appears in such a mainstream and influential US daily.
Cohen asserts (correctly) that how to engage with Iran begins with Khamene'i, and examines what this "astute man" might want and what he would be prepared to give. To quote Cohen,
"Khamenei sees his primary task as safeguarding a revolution whose core values include independence, cultural and scientific self-sufficiency, the global revitalization of Islam as a guiding body of law, and social justice. He believes that America demands 'submission and hegemony' ".
Cohen goes on to set out the policy stances that the US must adopt in the light of these convictions:
"Obama must assure Khamenei that not only has America abandoned the goal of regime change, it sees Iran as a central player in regional stability. That deals with the independence obsession.
"Obama must abandon military threats to Iran's nuclear program in favour of an approach recognizing the country's inevitable mastery of the nuclear fuel cycle, while securing verifiable conditions that ensure such mastery is not diverted to bomb manufacturing. That addresses Iran's intellectual pride (as well as the fact that the neighbourhood includes the nuclear armed powers of Israel, Pakistan and India).
He must redirect U.S. policy toward Israel-Palesetine to make Hamas-Fatah reconciliation a core American objective, recognition that the "terrorist" label is an inadequate description of the broad movements that are Hamas and Hezbollah and end the Israel-can-do-no-wrong policy that sabotages a two-state solution. This would allow Khamenei to claim that his demands for Palestinian justice - as the self-styled leader of the world's Muslims - have been heard."
Of course there is a price to be paid for these concessions:
"In return, Iran must accept the two-state solution backed by the Arab League (Khamenei, notes Cohen, has said 'the fate of Palestine should be determined by the Palestinian people'). It must reciprocate American movement on Hamas and Hezbollah by ending its military, but not political, support for them.
"It must back U.S. efforts to stabilize Iraq and Afghanistan. It must improve its poor human rights record. And to show goodwill, it must hit the pause button on the centrifuges once high-level talks with America begin."
I do not find too much in these packages of concessions with which to disagree, but I see difficulties on both sides. It remains to be seen to what extent the new Administration will be prepared either to lay down the law to Israel or to reposition itself on Hamas and Hezbollah, particularly when it is so preoccupied with the consequences of the Global Financial Crisis. The requirement that Iran hit the pause button on the centrifuges sounds to me very close to a precondition, one that the Iranians will find hard to stomach. I think an Iran without nuclear weapons is achievable, provided the threat of military action by the United States and Israel is abandoned, but Iranian acquiescence in anything short of full fuel cycle independence is not.