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NEW YORK, Jul 17 2009 (IPS) - In 2007, after eight months of detention in Iran – four in solitary confinement in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison – Iranian-American scholar Haleh Esfandiari returned to the U.S. and held a press conference at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, where she directs the Middle East Programme.
When the floor was opened, the first questioner asked if Esfandiari – a longtime advocate of engagement with the Islamic Republic – still supported talks with Iran after her imprisonment there on false charges of fomenting a “velvet revolution”.
“I always have and will advocate talks between governments,” Esfandiari said, “be it the Iranian government and the United States or any other government. I think governments should talk to each other.”
But Esfandiari may have spoken too soon – she now says engagement should be put on the back burner.
At a 92nd Street Y event on Wednesday evening, Esfandiari was among three prominent Iran experts and previously staunch supporters of engagement with Iran who have changed their tunes since the disputed Jun. 12 election and its violent aftermath.
After 30 years of enmity where the U.S. and Iran have had no formal relations, said Esfandiari, she did not see the harm in waiting for a period – she suggested six months – to see how things shake out on the ground in Iran.
In what was billed as a major, comprehensive foreign policy speech on Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the U.S. remained committed to engagement with all actors, including Iran.
While acknowledging that recent events in Iran had “certainly shifted” prospects for success, Clinton remained steadfast: “The choice is clear. We remain ready to engage with Iran.”
“But,” she warned, “the time for action is now. The opportunity will not remain open indefinitely.”
In contrast, all three of the experts on the 92nd Street Y panel said just the opposite: that engagement should not occur now, but the door should be open to it later.
Echoing Esfandiari, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace fellow Karim Sadjadpour, who has also advocated engagement, said he was reconsidering past positions.
“For the first time, I’m against engagement,” at least for now, he said.
But National Iranian American Council (NIAC) president Trita Parsi said engagement might not need to be put completely on hold.
“I still think that engagement is the policy to pursue, but I don’t think we have to rush into it,” Parsi told IPS.
“What you want to avoid doing is have engagement in a manner that can tilt the balance in either direction when it comes to the internal political situation in Iran,” he said. “That, in my view, means that broad diplomatic engagement has to wait a little while.”
“If we are going wait for the dust to settle, as [U.S. President Barack Obama] has said, then we should wait for the dust to settle,” Parsi said, noting, “The opposition has not given up.”
But he said that certain talks, like the multilateral nuclear talks, could possibly go on.
Roger Cohen, the New York Times columnist who was one of the last Western journalists on the streets of Tehran despite the fact that his press pass – but not his visa – had been revoked, admitted that other considerations had to be brought into the conversation about engagement.
“The strategic imperative for engagement remains,” he said, noting Iran’s “pivotal place in the region”.
Iran’s influence is apparent in many of the countries of interest to the U.S. Iran is allied with important states and actors in the Arab-Israeli arena – where the U.S. is making robust peace efforts – and Iraq and Afghanistan, where the U.S. is respectively winding down and ramping up wars.
One of the top strategic concerns is Iran’s nuclear programme, which it claims is peaceful, but which adversaries – including, notably, close U.S. ally Israel – have charged is aimed at production of nuclear weapons.
However, the nuclear clock, noted Efandiari, will continue to tick whether or not the U.S. engages – and experts debate the possible timeframe for Iranian weapons capability.
Parsi said that engagement on the nuclear issue didn’t have to be put aside entirely, noting that a U.N. Security Council’s P5+1 group – not solely the U.S. – were conducting the ongoing nuclear negotiations.
Parsi said putting the full brakes on those talks could be complicated: “It’s difficult for the U.S. to say that without being in a [former President] George Bush administration position again.”
For most of his tenure, Bush roundly opposed talking to Iran, even through international bodies, labeling the country as part of the “Axis of Evil” in his 2002 State of the Union address.
Many advocates of continuing with a plan of robust engagement, among them so-called foreign policy ‘realists’, cite historical precedent in dealing with U.S. adversaries, such as engagement with China despite its brutal 1989 crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square.
In a recent article, New America Foundation’s (NAF) Flynt Leverett noted that the Iranian crackdown following massive demonstrations against the disputed reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had “far less bloodshed” than Tiananmen Square.
Or as his NAF colleague Steve Clemons half-joked: “America has a rich history of dealing with thugs.”
But some Iran experts have dismissed the comparisons.
“Tehran was not Tiananmen Square,” said Esfandiari on Wednesday. “People went and voted and their votes were stolen. It was a different thing.”
According to Cohen, some of the realist strategic concerns must be put on the back burner.
“There’s also a moral imperative now,” he said. “So long as people are being killed in Iran… clubbed by the thousands, I don’t think it can be business as usual.”
Parsi also said that engagement that can bolster Ahmadinejad over the opposition, led by the ostensible losing candidate Mir Hossein Moussavi, would be folly.
Citing Esfaniari’s comment that Iranian security services were worked up into a frenzy of “paranoia” about a velvet revolution, Cohen questioned whether U.S. talks with Iran could bear any fruit right now.
“I don’t think Iran has a national security team right now,” Cohen said. Such a cohesive group would be necessary to engagement on security issues.
“They’re in disarray,” Cohen said, because they’re dealing with the internal situation.
Cohen suggested waiting until at least the fall to make an attempt at engagement, at which time, he said, all the issues had to be put on the table at once.
“This is such a messed up relationship,” he said, pointing to decades of hostility and traumatic events like 1953 CIA-backed coup in Iran and the 1979 hostage crisis in Tehran that was televised nightly in the U.S. for more than a year.
“We need to get past the psychosis,” Cohen said. “That looks very remote to me.”
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