By Michael Hirsh
Sunday, July 1, 2007
TEHRAN I found the general at the end of a winding road in the Alborz Mountains 150 miles north of Tehran. He was sitting placidly at a table laden with cherries, nectarines and other fruits. A stream flowed nearby. It was a pleasant and pastoral place to discuss an uncomfortable matter: the tension between Iran and the United States, and the looming possibility of war.
The general, Mohsen Rezai, is secretary of Iran's powerful Expediency Council. He's also the former commander of the Revolutionary Guards. He rarely speaks to foreign reporters -- especially Americans. I was surprised when, during a recent visit to Iran, I learned from one of Rezai's aides that he would be willing to meet me at his vacation villa in the mountains.
Given Iran's complex, nearly impenetrable politics, it is difficult to say whether Rezai wanted to deliver a semi-official message, or was freelancing. But it seemed like the former, especially because the government also arranged rare interviews with other senior officials, including Ali Larijani, the main negotiator on Iran's nuclear program.
Rezai's intention was clear: No matter what question I asked, he somehow managed to bring the discussion back to Tehran's need to find its way out of its dangerous stalemate with Washington. President Bush "has started a cold war with Iran, and if it's not controlled, it could turn into a warm war," he said.
Rezai suggested that Iran is searching hard for a face-saving way to end the standoff over its ever-advancing uranium-enrichment program. He endorsed, in a more forthright way than I have heard from any other senior Iranian official, a "timeout" proposed by Mohamed ElBaradei, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency. "What it means is for Iran to stay at the [enrichment] level it has reached, with no further progress. By the same token, the U.N. Security Council will not issue another resolution," said Rezai, who indicated that the idea is gaining support inside the Iranian regime. "The Iranian nuclear issue has to be resolved through a new kind of solution like this."
Rezai also suggested that the talks recently begun in Baghdad between Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, and his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Qomi, had taken the edge off the sense of threat felt in Tehran. The talks amounted to a long-overdue acknowledgment by Bush that he must deal with the regime, Rezai contended, sounding pleased.
In his late 60s, Rezai doesn't look as formidable as his résumé. A soft-spoken man of medium height, he commanded the elite Revolutionary Guards during most of the brutal Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, and he helped lead the Iranian offensives that secured Iraqi territory by the end. ("Iran doesn't succumb," Rezai told me proudly when I asked what might happen if the United States ever attacked.) He was also one of five senior Iranian officials whom an Argentine judge named as suspects late last year in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people. (Iran called the charges "baseless.")
Rezai's effort at outreach suggests that the policy of diplomatic coercion being pursued by the United States, Britain, France and Germany is working, at least to some degree. Iran has grown weary of its economic and political isolation, and senior officials in Tehran remain preoccupied with the possibility of a U.S. military strike. Now Iran is eager to satisfy ElBaradei's demands for further clarity on the illicit history of its program -- so much so that Larijani met twice with him last week.
What is not clear is whether the Bush administration will accept a "timeout," as opposed to a full suspension of Iran's enrichment activities. It also is not clear, despite Rezai's hopes, that Bush has given up on regime change; hence the "presidential finding" Bush recently signed that authorizes the CIA to conduct non-lethal operations to harass the Iranian regime. Having isolated Tehran diplomatically, the Bush administration seems content to simply wait until it "caves."
But my 10-day visit to Iran in late June, mostly spent in Tehran, convinced me that any hopes that Iran will just give up are badly misguided. Yes, the regime is under pressure, but it isn't close to having its back to the wall economically, despite its recent move to ration gasoline, which provoked violent protests. Stores are well stocked, the streets are thronged with shoppers, and flower stores and luxury goods abound, indicating that people in this oil-rich economy still have plenty of disposable income. The U.N. sanctions and the quiet pressure on international banks to cut off business with Iran inflict some pain, but they are generally nuisances and not deal-breakers. And the sanctions are shot full of holes: European businesses do vibrant trade with Iranian counterparts, and Iranians have just shifted their business dealings from dollars to Euros.
Bush's feeble $75 million effort to promote democracy in Iran also is not gaining traction. While much of the Western media in recent weeks have focused on the detention of four Iranian Americans who made the mistake of traveling back to their homeland at a time when the government is even more paranoid than usual about American plots, they scarcely make news in Tehran. Indeed, the Bush program's most notable impact has been giving the regime justification for a new crackdown on dissent.
Even so, the comments by Rezai and Larijani indicate that, with 18 months left in Bush's presidency, Iran may be offering his administration a last chance at a new relationship. At least twice before, the administration has slapped down such overtures. In late 2001, Iran provided invaluable assistance in stabilizing the post-Taliban government led by Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan, pledging $550 million worth of assistance (about the same amount promised by the United States) at a January 2002 donors' conference. A week later, Bush declared Iran part of the "axis of evil" during his second State of the Union address -- a stinging rebuff that Iranians still talk about bitterly. Then, in the spring of 2003, Iranian officials used their regular Swiss intermediary to fax a two-page proposal for comprehensive talks to the State Department, including discussions of a "two-state approach" to the Israeli-Palestinian issue. That, too, was ignored.
The Bush team is in danger of letting the current opening from Iran pass it by as well. The administration doesn't seem to recognize that diplomatic coercion by itself can't work -- not with a country that has turned its nuclear program into a national crusade. And one hears little acknowledgment from senior U.S. officials that the United States and Iran share some critical interests. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in a June 8 roundtable with the Wall Street Journal editorial board, called the U.S.-Iranian relationship "overall rather zero-sum" and confessed that she couldn't figure Iran out. "I think it's a very opaque place, and it's a political system I don't understand very well," she said.
It is this impression of inevitably clashing interests that Rezai was trying hard to dispel. He pointed out that his is the only country that can help Washington control Shiite militias in Iraq, slow the Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan and tame Hezbollah's still-dangerous presence in Lebanon all at once. "If America pursues a different approach than confronting Iran, our dealings will change fundamentally," he said.
My conversations with hard-liners and reformers inside Tehran also suggested something deeper: that under the right circumstances, Iran may still be willing to stop short of building a bomb. "Iran would like to have the technology, and that is enough for deterrence," says S.M.H. Adeli, Iran's moderate, urbane former ambassador to London.
And what of other overlapping interests? Let's start with Iraq, the one area where Washington does seem to acknowledge it needs Tehran's help, even as the administration continues to accuse Iran of delivering sophisticated makeshift bombs to Iraqi militants. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite-dominated government "is of strategic importance to us," Rezai said. "We want this government to stay in power. Rival Sunni countries oppose Maliki. We haven't." It also stands to reason that in Afghanistan, Lebanon and the new "Hamastan" in Gaza -- all places where Tehran wields enormous influence -- an Iran that is encouraged to play a broader regional security role could become more cooperative.
Of course, the elephant in the room is Iran's toxic relationship with Israel, especially President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's denial that the Holocaust happened and his threats toward a U.S. ally. But several Iranian officials hinted that Ahmadinejad crossed a red line in Iranian politics when he pushed his rhetoric beyond the official hope that Israel would one day disappear to suggest that Tehran might help that process along. A new Iranian president would rebalance that position, they indicated.
Still, the Iranians themselves recognize that a more dramatic shift in policy is unlikely to happen on Bush's watch. "Mr. Bush's government is stuck at a crossroads" between confrontation and engagement, "and it can't make a decision," Rezai said. "We have a saying in Farsi: When a child walks in darkness, he starts singing or making loud noises because he's afraid of the dark. The Americans are afraid to negotiate with Iran, and that's why they're making a lot of loud noises." Whether or not that's true, new noises are clearly coming from Tehran. Washington should listen.
Michael Hirsh is a senior editor at Newsweek.