It's Time to Engage With Iran

By David Ignatius
Friday, May 26, 2006

"Only connect." That was the trademark line of E.M. Forster's great novel "Howards End." And it's a useful injunction in thinking about U.S. strategy toward Iran and the wider conflicts between the West and the Muslim world.

We are in the early stages of what the Centcom commander, Gen. John Abizaid, calls "the first war of globalization, between openness and closed societies." One key to winning that war, Abizaid told a small group of reporters at the Pentagon yesterday, is to expand openness and connection. He called al-Qaeda "the military arm of the closed order." The same could be said of the extremist mullahs in Tehran who are pushing for nuclear weapons.

America's best strategy is to play to its strengths -- which are the open exchange of ideas, backed up by unmatched military power. The need for connection is especially clear in the case of Iran, which in isolation has remained frozen in revolutionary zealotry like an exotic fruit in aspic. Yet some in the Bush administration cling to the idea that isolation is a good thing and that connectivity will somehow weaken the West's position. That ignores the obvious lesson of the past 40 years, which is that isolation has usually failed (as in the cases of Cuba and North Korea), while connectivity has usually succeeded (as in the cases of the Soviet Union and China).

A telling example was the decision to engage the Soviet Union in 1973 through the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe. At the time, some conservatives argued that it was a dangerous concession that the Soviets might interpret as a symbol of weakness. But the CSCE provided a crucial forum for dissidents in Russia and Eastern Europe, and with astonishing speed the mighty edifice of Soviet power began to crumble. Similar warnings about showing weakness in the face of an aggressive adversary were voiced when President Richard Nixon went to China in February 1972.

I cite this Cold War history because the moment has come for America to attempt to engage revolutionary Iran. The invitation for such a dialogue came this month in a letter to President Bush from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- a man whose rabble-rousing, Israel-baiting career gave him the credentials, if that's the right word, to break a 27-year Iranian taboo on contacts with the Great Satan.

Ahmadinejad's letter clearly had the backing of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In the American context, that's like having the support of Vice President Cheney for a peace feeler. My own Iranian sources say there is broad consensus in Tehran that it is time for talks with the United States. "Iran wants to start discussions the same way the Chinese wanted discussions" with Nixon, an Iranian businessman named Ali Ettefagh told me in an e-mail this week. "Great Satan doesn't sell anymore. More than half the population was not born 27 years ago, and the broken record does not play well." The Iranian offer of dialogue, he says, "ought to be taken as an opportunity, if only to air out grievances and amplify differences."

I suspect Iran wants dialogue now partly because it perceives America's position in Iraq as weak and its own as strong. That may be true, but so what? Washington should still take yes for an answer. The United States and its European allies this week are crafting a package that, one hopes, will include everything the Iranian people could want -- except nuclear weapons. The bundle of goodies should stress connectivity -- more air travel to Iran, more scholarships for students, more exchanges, Iranian membership in the World Trade Organization. The mullahs may well reject these incentives as threatening, but that's the point. Their retrograde theocracy can't last long in an open world. This very week, about 40 police officers were injured in a clash with demonstrators at two Tehran universities. One of the hand-lettered protest signs captured in an Iranian photo said: "This is not a seminary, it is a university."

Karim Sadjadpour, an Iranian analyst with the International Crisis Group, noted in Senate testimony last week that opinion polls show 75 percent of Iranians favor relations with the United States. "Embarking on a comprehensive dialogue with Iran would provide the U.S. with the opportunity to match its rhetorical commitment to Iranian democracy and human rights with action," Sadjadpour said. He's right.

There's no guarantee that a policy of engagement will work. The Iranian regime's desire to acquire nuclear weapons may be so unyielding that Tehran and Washington will remain on a collision course. But America and its allies will be in a stronger position for responding to Iranian calls for dialogue. Openness isn't a concession by America, it's a strategic weapon.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company