James Dobbins offers a novel idea: if the United States wants to thaw relations with the Iran, a good first step is to stop NOT talking to them.
For nearly 30 years, American diplomats have been limited as to when and where they could speak to their Iranian counterparts. The president could authorize Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to lift this ban. It’s that simple: Whether the diplomat is Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice; special envoy Richard Holbrooke, on a visit to Kabul or Islamabad; former assistant secretary of state Christopher Hill when he gets to Baghdad to replace Ambassador Ryan Crocker; or other U.S. diplomats, all would henceforth be free to engage Iranians as they do representatives of other countries with which the United States has troubled relations.
In this scenario, each American would operate within the limits of his or her existing instructions and responsibilities, as would the Iranians with whom he or she spoke. This is not a formula for negotiating a “grand bargain” addressing all the grievances of both sides or meeting all of each side’s needs. Contacts of this limited nature would be unlikely to produce near-term breakthroughs. Eventually, if real progress is to be made, each side would need to establish a privileged, confidential channel through which all issues of interest to both governments could be put on the table. It would be a lot easier to set up and maintain that kind of channel if the principle of direct contacts were established and the practice routine.
Dobbins does not get into it in his op-ed, but he has some personal experience with this sort of thing. In 2001, he was the American representative to the Bonn Conference which brought local Afghan factions and regional players together to try and concoct a new Afghan political consensus post-Taliban. In his excellent memoir of the time After the Taliban, Dobbins recounts how, somewhat surprisingly, he was able to work quite effectively with his Iranian counterparts at Bonn. Of course, this was before the Axis of Evil speech.
I talked to Dobbins about this episode a few months ago for a BloggingHeads segment. Here’s Dobbins in his own words.
UPDATE: Some readers are having trouble viewing the video. Here is a direct link to an excerpt of my conversation with Dobbins.