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Experts Urge Direct US-Iranian Talks to Resolve Nuclear Issue

Iran has once again rejected cooperation with the United Nations in curtailing its nuclear weapons ambitions. Some experts are calling for direct U.S.-Iranian talks to resolve the issue.

The confrontation between many Western nations and Iran is heating up as Tehran continues to defy the international community by enriching uranium - a process that can be used either for civilian or military purposes.

Iranian officials have said for years their program is meant only for peaceful goals, such as producing electricity. But the United States and Europe believe Tehran's ambitions are ultimately to build nuclear weapons.

Experts say now that Tehran has refused to stop its enrichment program, as demanded by the United Nations Security Council, the international community must look at measures to force Iran to comply with U.N. demands. One solution would be to impose sanctions, though Russia and China are against such measures.

Others have advocated a military attack on Iran. Bush administration officials have stated 'all options are on the table,' meaning a military strike has not been ruled out. But at the same time, they have stressed diplomacy is the way forward.

Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns repeated that message during a recent State Department briefing.

"We are devoted and dedicated to making the Security Council process effective," he said.  "We are putting an enormous amount of energy and a lot of resources into thinking through how the Security Council can be effective. So we haven't given up on diplomacy. We have not given up on the Security Council and the largest part of our effort will be through the Security Council."

However a number of foreign policy experts have said the best way to address Iran's nuclear weapons ambitions would be through direct talks between Washington and Tehran. One of those experts is Joseph Cirincione, from the Council on Foreign Relations.

"We have diplomacy. We can negotiate," he said.  "The United States is not even talking to Iran yet. Why not? Why aren't we negotiating with Iran? We negotiated with Libya. We're negotiating with North Korea. We negotiated with Stalin and Mao.  Why aren't we talking with Iran?"

Last month there was an agreement to begin discussions between Washington and Tehran restricted only to Iraqi-related issues. Iran has close ties to some members of the Shiaa community in Iraq.

But U.S. officials have said those talks have been delayed pending the formation of a new Iraqi government. And Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says now that there is a new Iraqi Prime Minister, there is no need for direct U.S.-Iranian talks.

However Ted Carpenter, foreign policy expert at the Cato Institute, says Mr. Ahmadinejad does not speak for the entire Iranian leadership.

"We have to understand that in Iran, the president basically controls the cabinet and not much more than that," said Mr. Carpenter.  "The real power lies with the senior mullahs. Many of them appear to be far more interested in talking to the United States than Ahmadinejad is."

Carpenter says if the talks take place, the United States should not just focus on Iran's role in Iraq. They should be expanded to include nuclear issues - and he says Washington should offer Iran what he calls 'a grand bargain.'

"It would be a proposal to normalize diplomatic relations with Iran, to end all economic sanctions and normalize economic relations in exchange for an agreement whereby Iran would allow comprehensive, on demand, international inspections of its nuclear program to make sure that, while Iran might build a peaceful nuclear power program, it would not be able to divert fissile material to a weapons program," he added.

Carpenter says such a deal would benefit both parties and would resolve the dispute without the danger of military action.

Charles Kupchan, former National Security Council member in the first Clinton administration, says face-to-face talks raise some important questions.

"Would a direct American dialogue with Tehran accord the regime and the country the sort of respect that they are seeking and make them more compliant? Or would it, on the other hand, make them feel like they are making progress and therefore dig in their heels? It's a debate that is taking place within the foreign policy community today," he explained.  "And it is also something that is probably being discussed across the Atlantic where the Europeans may be encouraging the United States to get more involved."

For the time being, President Bush says one-on-one talks could present problems and he favors a multi-national approach.

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