Cohen: Iran is job one
NEW YORK: Until he retired from the State Department earlier this year, Nicholas Burns was, as under secretary of state for political affairs, the lead U.S. negotiator on Iran.
And how many times, during his three years in this role, did he meet with an Iranian?
Not once. Burns wasn't allowed to. His presence was supposed to be the reward if the Iranians suspended uranium enrichment and sat down at the table.
Burns, now 52, joined the State Department in 1980. He's among a generation of U.S. diplomats who have never set foot in Iran, the rising power of the Middle East, even with oil at $70 rather than double that.
Let me put this bluntly: If America is serious about the Middle East, this has got to change.
Wall Street has marginalized foreign policy in the U.S. election campaign. But it will roar back on Nov. 5. The in-box of the next president will include two intractable wars (Iraq and Afghanistan) and a tight timetable, of perhaps two years, for preventing Iran from securing nuclear weapons capability.
That's an Iran-dominated agenda. Apart from the nuclear issue, which has tended to override everything, long-term stability in both Iraq and Afghanistan is inconceivable without some Iranian cooperation, as is peace in Lebanon and a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
On Iran, Barack Obama and John McCain could scarcely be further apart. Obama has said of Iran that, "For us not to be in a conversation with them doesn't make sense."
McCain has sung "Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran" to the tune of a Beach Boys number - a joke, no doubt, but one reflective of the confrontational tone of his foreign policy pronouncements.
"Country first," a McCain campaign slogan, seems to mean "Rest of the world last." Certainly that's where Sarah Palin, his running mate with a recently acquired passport and a taste for "pro-America" parts of the country, places it.
Burns, like Obama, believes it's time to talk to Iran. "The U.S. needs to commit to a more ambitious diplomatic strategy," he told me. "We have a responsibility, after Iraq, before we consider the use of force, to demonstrate that every diplomatic avenue has been explored. If they come to the table and balk, we will have more leverage with Russia and China to press for much tougher sanctions."
It's time to drop the condition that Iran suspend enrichment before we talk. The condition serves little purpose - Iran can always resume enrichment - and has given the mullahs an alibi.
It's also time - next year will mark the 30th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution - to rethink the whole U.S. approach to Iran. A good place to start would be getting inside the head of Ali Khamenei, the supreme Iranian religious leader.
The Iranian Revolution was a religious uprising, but also a nationalist one against U.S. meddling in the country, including the CIA-engineered 1953 coup and support for the shah. Khamenei knows that identification still underwrites his power, and that Iran's leadership of an anti-American front still counts on the Muslim street.
He also knows how much Iranian power has grown in recent years, through the U.S. removal of its arch-enemy Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the ushering of fellow Shiites to power in Baghdad. He knows that Iranian-backed Hezbollah and Hamas are now powerful forces. He knows how stretched the U.S. is militarily. He knows how popular the nuclear program is domestically as a symbol of Iran's regional ambitions. And he knows Israel has the bomb.
These are realities. They may be unpalatable, but if there's a lesson to the Bush years, it's that dealing in illusions is unhelpful. The cost to Khamenei of a handshake with America is high.
But Iran also has some shared interests with America - in preventing a break-up of Iraq, in preventing the return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan, in avoiding a violent confrontation of the Sunni and Shiite worlds. It wants security, more economic access, and, eventually, restored diplomatic relations with the United States.
All of this says to me: Think big. Don't obsess about the nuclear issue, critical as it is. Get everything on the table. Be realistic, as in: We have interests, you have interests, are there areas in which they coincide?
Don't lecture, don't moralize. Don't demand everything - an end to the nuclear program and terrorism and Lebanese and Gazan interference - without the means to back such demands. That's been the Bush failure.
I can hear the outrage already: But Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president at least until elections next year, wants to wipe Israel off the map! He denies the Holocaust! Sunni powers including Saudi Arabia will race for the bomb unless America takes out the Iranian centrifuges!
To which I say, focus on today's reality, coldly. Iran does not have nuclear capacity yet. It's time to talk.
And it's time to find the greatest Americans, irrespective of party, to get that talking going. As Obama has noted, "We negotiated with Stalin. We negotiated with Mao."