Jim Lehrer missed an opportunity last night to help clarify for people watching the debate what is in dispute between Democrats like Barack Obama and Republicans like John McCain about U.S. policy towards Iran. For the record, this is what McCain adviser and former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said about U.S. policy towards Iran, according to the transcript on CNN's website:
"I am in favor of negotiating with Iran.... I do not believe that we can make conditions for the opening of negotiations."
This was at an event with five former U.S. Secretaries of State, three Republicans (Kissinger, Powell, and Baker) and two Democrats (Christopher and Albright.) All five agreed that the U.S. should negotiate with Iran, without preconditions.
What "without preconditions" means in this context is quite straightforward and well-known. The current policy of the Bush Administration has been that the United States will not enter into substantive talks with Iran unless Iran first agrees to suspend the enrichment of uranium. The five former U.S. Secretaries of State agreed that this was a mistake, and that the United States should drop this precondition for the beginning of talks.
Our former Ambassador to the United Nations Thomas Pickering, who has spent much of his adult life being paid by the United States government to be an expert on diplomacy, put it this way in an interview earlier this year:
"Certainly, there's been a lot of suspicion of Iran, I join in being concerned about Iran's nuclear program, I don't dismiss that at all, it's serious. But I think asking for a price to open talks is not a feasible way to get the conversation going, and it was not the posture of the United States when it opened talks with North Korea...my own feeling is that with Iran we should start talks with Iran without preconditions."
It's John McCain's position - the neoconservative position - that is the outlier. And besides electioneering, there's only one plausible, logical explanation for the McCain-neoconservative position: they don't want an agreement between the United States and Iran. What they fear is not that talks would be useless, but that they might be productive.
After all, as everybody knows, if the U.S. seriously pursued talks and the talks failed, it would be a huge propaganda victory for the United States. "See," the United States could say. "We tried."
What the neoconservatives are afraid of is that there might actually be an agreement, and that an agreement would acknowledge and accept Iran's status and interests in the region. Then the neocons would have to give up their fantasies of "regime change" in Iran and "roll back" of Iranian influence.
The neoconservatives are married to the precondition of suspension of enrichment because they believe it is a deal-breaker for the Iranian side. There is an overwhelming consensus of Iranian public opinion that Iran has and must exercise the right to its own nuclear energy program. This consensus includes every political faction with significant influence in the country's politics. So, if your real goal is to prevent any agreement between the United States and Iran, insisting that Iran abandon its nuclear program (which is how Iranians interpret the U.S. demand) as a precondition for talks is an excellent policy.
There is a proposal on the floor that would meet U.S. concerns about the future capacity of Iran to use nuclear technology for a weapons program while satisfying the demand of Iranian public opinion for an Iranian nuclear energy program. That is Ambassador Pickering's proposal for multilateral enrichment in Iran, with full transparency and vigorous inspections. This week in New York Iranian officials restated Iran's willingness to negotiate on such a proposal.
That is what is in dispute. Do we want four more years - or even eight more years - of confrontation with Iran in a McCain-Palin Administration pursuing the neoconservative policies of the early Bush Administration, or do we want to seriously pursue negotiations that could lead to an agreement that would help stabilize the whole Middle East, significantly facilitating U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and promoting stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Ambassador Pickering explains his proposal.