If Iran is ready to talk, the US must do so unconditionally
It is absurd to demand that Tehran should have made concessions
before sitting down with the Americans
By Jonathan Steele
-- -- It is 50 years since the greatest
misquotation of the cold war. At a Kremlin reception for western
ambassadors in 1956, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev
announced: "We will bury you." Those four words were seized on
by American hawks as proof of aggressive Soviet intent.
Doves who pointed out that the full quotation gave a less
threatening message were drowned out. Khrushchev had actually
said: "Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We
will bury you." It was a harmless boast about socialism's
eventual victory in the ideological competition with capitalism.
He was not talking about war.
Now we face a similar propaganda distortion of remarks by Iran's
president. Ask anyone in Washington, London or Tel Aviv if they
can cite any phrase uttered by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the
chances are high they will say he wants Israel "wiped off the
Again it is four short words, though the distortion is worse
than in the Khrushchev case. The remarks are not out of context.
They are wrong, pure and simple. Ahmadinejad never said them.
Farsi speakers have pointed out that he was mistranslated. The
Iranian president was quoting an ancient statement by Iran's
first Islamist leader, the late Ayatollah Khomeini, that "this
regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time"
just as the Shah's regime in Iran had vanished.
He was not making a military threat. He was calling for an end
to the occupation of Jerusalem at some point in the future. The
"page of time" phrase suggests he did not expect it to happen
soon. There was no implication that either Khomeini, when he
first made the statement, or Ahmadinejad, in repeating it, felt
it was imminent, or that Iran would be involved in bringing it
But the propaganda damage was done, and western hawks bracket
the Iranian president with Hitler as though he wants to
exterminate Jews. At the recent annual convention of the
American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a powerful lobby
group, huge screens switched between pictures of Ahmadinejad
making the false "wiping off the map" statement and a ranting
Misquoting Ahmadinejad is worse than taking Khrushchev out of
context for a second reason. Although the Soviet Union had a
collective leadership, the pudgy Russian was the undoubted No 1
figure, particularly on foreign policy. The Iranian president is
His predecessor, Mohammad Khatami, was seen in the west as a
moderate reformer, and during his eight years in office western
politicians regularly lamented the fact that he was not Iran's
top decision-maker. Ultimate power lay with the conservative
unelected supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Yet now that
Ahmadinejad is president, western hawks behave as though he is
in charge, when in fact nothing has changed. Ahmadinejad is not
the only important voice in Tehran. Indeed Khamenei was quick to
try to adjust the misperceptions of Ahmadinejad's comments. A
few days after the president made them, Khamenei said Iran "will
not commit aggression against any nation".
The evidence suggests that a debate is going on in Tehran over
policy towards the west which is no less fierce than the one in
Washington. Since 2003 the Iranians have made several overtures
to the Bush administration, some more explicit than others.
Ahmadinejad's recent letter to Bush was a veiled invitation to
dialogue. Iranians are also arguing over policy towards Israel.
Trita Parsi, an analyst at Johns Hopkins University, says
influential rivals to Ahmadinejad support a "Malaysian" model
whereby Iran, like Islamic Malaysia, would not recognise Israel
but would not support Palestinian groups such as Hamas, if
relations with the US were better.
The obvious way to develop the debate is for the two states to
start talking to each other. Last winter the Americans said they
were willing, provided talks were limited to Iraq. Then the
hawks around Bush vetoed even that narrow agenda. Their victory
made nonsense of the pressure the US is putting on other UN
security council members for tough action against Iran. Talk of
sanctions is clearly premature until Washington and Tehran make
an effort to negotiate. This week, in advance of Condoleezza
Rice's meeting in Vienna yesterday with the foreign ministers of
Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia, the factions in
Washington hammered out a compromise. The US is ready to talk to
Tehran alongside the EU3 (Britain, France and Germany), but only
after Tehran has abandoned its uranium-enrichment programme.
To say the EU3's dialogue with Tehran was sufficient, as
Washington did until this week, was the most astonishing example
of multilateralism in the Bush presidency. A government that
makes a practice of ignoring allies and refuses to accept the
jurisdiction of bodies such as the International Criminal Court
was leaving all the talking to others on one of the hottest
issues of the day. Unless Bush is set on war, this refusal to
open a dialogue could not be taken seriously.
The EU3's offer of carrots for Tehran was also meaningless
without a US role. Europe cannot give Iran security guarantees.
Tehran does not want non-aggression pacts with Europe. It wants
them with the only state that is threatening it both with
military attack and foreign-funded programmes for regime change.
The US compromise on talks with Iran is a step in the right
direction, though Rice's hasty statement was poorly drafted,
repeatedly calling Iran both a "government" and a "regime". But
it is absurd to expect Iran to make concessions before sitting
down with the Americans. Dialogue is in the interests of all
parties. Europe's leaders, as well as Russia and China, should
come out clearly and tell the Americans so.
Whatever Iran's nuclear ambitions, even US hawks admit it will
be years before it could acquire a bomb, let alone the means to
deliver it. This offers ample time for negotiations and a "grand
bargain" between Iran and the US over Middle Eastern security.
Flanked by countries with US bases, Iran has legitimate concerns
about Washington's intentions.
Even without the US factor, instability in the Gulf worries all
Iranians, whether or not they like being ruled by clerics.
All-out civil war in Iraq, which could lead to intervention by
Turkey and Iraq's Arab neighbours, would be a disaster for Iran.
If the US wants to withdraw from Iraq in any kind of order, this
too will require dialogue with Iran. If this is what Blair told
Bush last week, he did well. But he should go all the way, and
urge the Americans to talk without conditions.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006.
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