Will the U.S. Talk to Iran While It Persecutes Americans and Libels Israel?
LAST WEEK, the Iranian regime brought American journalist Roxana Saberi before a closed court and in a one-hour trial convicted her of espionage -- a blatantly bogus charge. She was sentenced to eight years in prison. On Monday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was last seen inaugurating a new facility for Iran's nuclear program, appeared at the U.N. conference on racism in Geneva to deliver a speech seemingly calculated to cause maximum outrage in the United States and other Western countries. They had, he said, "resorted to military aggression" in order to create Israel "on the pretext of Jewish sufferings and the ambiguous and dubious question of the Holocaust."
Thus has Iran answered President Obama's offer of dialogue and the decision by his administration to join talks on Tehran's nuclear program. To the consternation of some European officials, Washington has insisted on dropping a long-standing demand that Iran obey U.N. resolutions ordering it to suspend uranium enrichment before negotiations begin. Iran could have responded to this concession by releasing Ms. Saberi, who holds U.S. and Iranian citizenship, and ex-FBI agent Robert Levinson, as the administration asked it to do in a State Department letter last month. Instead the charges against Ms. Saberi were ramped up, from practicing journalism without a credential and buying wine, to espionage; the regime does not even admit that it is holding Mr. Levinson.
Then came Mr. Ahmadinejad's speech, which repeated the numerous anti-Israel and anti-Semitic libels that have made the Iranian president a pariah in the West. Western delegates walked out on the address, which the State Department rightly called "vile and hateful." Yet Mr. Ahmadinejad had accomplished his aim: advancing Iran's claim to represent radical Arab and Islamic opinion, along with his own campaign for reelection in June.
Iran watchers point out that Mr. Ahmadinejad has sent other messages recently. He said he would welcome direct talks with Washington, and over the weekend he dispatched a letter to Ms. Saberi's prosecutor urging that she be allowed to defend herself. These are not necessarily contradictions. What Iran is doing is inviting Mr. Obama to humiliate his new administration by launching talks with the regime even while it is conspicuously expanding its nuclear program, campaigning to delegitimize and destroy Israel and imprisoning innocent Americans. Mr. Ahmadinejad's unlikely concern for Ms. Saberi's defense, along with other regime statements suggesting her sentence could be reduced, sound like an offer to make her a bargaining chip -- to be exchanged, perhaps, for members of the Revolutionary Guard Corps who are in U.S. custody in Iraq.
Mr. Obama has always said that talks with Iran must be conducted under the right circumstances and in a way that advances U.S. interests. The administration won't meet that test if it allows negotiations to become a means of vindicating Mr. Ahmadinejad's radical agenda. It should postpone any contact until after the Iranian election in June -- and it should look for clear signs that Iran is acting in good faith before talks begin. The unconditional release of Ms. Saberi and Mr. Levinson would be one.