Can we talk?


Published: Thursday, June 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, May 31, 2006 at 11:15 p.m.
Nixon went to China. Can Bush talk to Iran?
Bush administration officials indicated Wednesday that they just might, on certain conditions, be ready to break an official silence that's prevailed since the 1979 hostage crisis.
So far, it's mostly fallen to the Europeans to negotiate with Iran about backing off its nuclear development program in return for normalizing relations with the West. The threat of U.N. sanctions hangs in the background, but sitting on top of one of the world's largest oil reserves, Iran doesn't seem too worried. And with U.S. troops bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, the prospect of military intervention doesn't make much of an impression on Tehran either.
Why break a nearly three decade long silence? First, the Europeans want the U.S. to take a more active role in negotiations. And despite the rambling, bizarre nature of the letter that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently sent to Bush, some foreign affairs experts, Henry Kissinger for one, think it is an indication that Ahmadinejad is ready to talk.
Administration officials worry that direct communications might be taken as a sign of weakness; a lessening of U.S. resolve that Iran concede or suffer the consequences. But talking isn't a weakness.
"Diplomacy is much more than just talking to your friends," Richard Armitage, former deputy secretary of state under Colin Powell, told the New York Times last week. "You've got to talk to people who aren't our friends, and even people you dislike."
Iran's Ahmadinejad can rattle sabres as well as President Bush. But there are indictions that he is moving to gradually weaken the iron grip that the clergy has maintained on his country for decades, even as he has been introducing domestic policies that are less oppressive toward women. Moreover, the way things are going, Iran may one day have better relations with Iraq than America does.
Is it really so fantastic that opening official lines of communication between Washington and Tehran may lead to a gradual thawing of a cold war that goes back nearly three decades? When Ronald Reagan was President, Libya's Moammar Gadhafi was called a madman and a terrorist. Now he's an ally.
Can't we talk about it?

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