"Living in the Islamic Republic," wrote Azar Nafisi in her book Reading Lolita in Tehran in 2003, "is like having sex with a man you loathe." This verdict has gathered extra force and pungency as the succeeding years have elapsed and as more women have been stoned, hanged, beaten, raped, and silenced. Lately has come the news that Iranian men in prison are being raped, too, for trying to exercise their right to vote. And now the U.S. government has come to a point where it must ask itself: What is it like to enter negotiations with a man who loathes you and who every Friday holds public prayers that call for your death?
Last Friday brought the news that the Obama administration had accepted an offer from Tehran, delivered the preceding Wednesday, for the holding of what the New York Times called "unconditional talks." It was further reported that the administration had spent "less than 48 hours" deliberating whether to respond to the invitation, which yields the interesting if minor detail that this must have been the most significant decision taken by Obama's people on or about the eighth anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11.
Well, I am all for talks without preconditions, and I have said several times in this space that I think we should offer the Iranians cooperation on a wide spectrum of topics, especially the very pressing one of helping to "proof" Iran against the coming earthquake that could devastate its capital city. There may even be areas of potential interest in our having common enemies in the Taliban and al-Qaida. But things have changed a little since the president and his secretary of state were sparring over the word unconditional during the primaries. First, it has become ever clearer that Iran's uranium-enrichment and centrifuge program has put it within measurable distance of the ability to weaponize its nuclear capacity. Second, it has become obscenely obvious that the theocracy is prepared to govern by force alone and to employ the most appalling measures to remain in power without a mandate.
So it would be nice to know, even if no "conditions" or "preconditions" (this seems like a distinction without much difference) are to be exacted, whether the administration has assured itself on two points. The first of these is: Do we seriously expect the Islamic Republic to be negotiating in good faith about its nuclear program? And the second is: What do we know about the effect of these proposed talks on the morale and the leadership of the Iranian opposition?
One presumes that the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad regime had its own reasons for firing off a five-page document proposing negotiations and including Britain, France, Russia, Germany, and China—the much-stalled group of countries that have conducted business with Iran so far—in the offer. The letter was sent out in the same period that the Russian government opposed any further sanctions on Iran for noncooperation, in the same period that Ahmadinejad announced that Iran would never halt its nuclear fuel production, and in the run-up to Ahmadinejad's next appearance at the podium of the United Nations toward the end of this month.
Might it be possible—you will, I hope, forgive my cynicism—that this latest initiative from Tehran is yet another attempt to buy time or run out the clock?
Meanwhile, it is certainly the case that at least three of the six countries approached are being asked to negotiate under some kind of duress. In an unpardonable violation of diplomatic immunity (a phrase that may remind you of something), employees of the French and British Embassies in Tehran have been placed under arrest and subjected to show trials since the convulsions that attended the coup mounted by the Revolutionary Guards in June. And the Iranian correspondent of Newsweek magazine—who is also a Canadian citizen—has been held incommunicado for almost the same length of time. Without overstressing any "preconditions," it doesn't seem too much to require of the Iranian regime that it not send out invitations to countries whose citizens or locally engaged diplomatic staff it is holding as hostages.
On the larger question of the breach by Iran of all its undertakings about nuclear weapons, and the amazing absence from its diplomatic note of any mention of its own program, one wasn't too reassured by the lazy phrasing of Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. The Obama administration, she said, would not impose "artificial deadlines" on Ahmadinejad. Why is this not reassuring? Because it's impossible to tell what is meant by an "artificial deadline." Would one prefer a "genuine" deadline, whereby, for example, the United Nations required Iran to demonstrate compliance with the relevant Security Council resolutions on nuclear proliferation—we have a bushel of these—or face further U.N.-mandated sanctions? Certainly one would, but this isn't what Ambassador Rice appears to have meant.
From all appearances, then, this seems like another snow job from the mullahs. And did the State Department or the CIA take any soundings, in those 48 hours between receipt of the mullahs' letter and our response to it, among the leaders of Iranian civil society? Given the short interval, it seems that the thought did not even occur to them. Here is what I heard from professor Abbas Milani, the director of Iranian studies at Stanford University:
When you read [the Iranian letter] and realize how empty of earnest negotiating positions it in fact is, you are left with no choice but to conclude that they are relying on their ally in Putin's Russia to veto any resolutions against them. For the Russians to be able to even pretend to be serious in their talk of no need for more pressure on the regime, Tehran has also to pretend to be serious in negotiation.
This analysis appears to conform to all the available facts as we know them. A bit too much like having sex with someone who loathes you.