It May Be Best to Talk to Iran Before Launching a Strike

For dialogue with Tehran to succeed, the insolent tone and threatening language of the Israeli government spokespeople and their neoconservative friends in the United States must be toned down.

The convoy of senior American officials who are making weekly pilgrimages to Jerusalem, in an attempt to stop the Israel Air Force from attacking Iran, is no doubt chalking up plenty of flight hours for the U.S. Air Force. But the secretary of defense, the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the national security adviser and even President Barack Obama himself will not succeed in convincing Israel’s leadership that sanctions alone will suffice to stop the Iranian nuclear project.

Who knows better than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that there are principles in whose name nations are prepared to ignore the whole world, and for which nations will even pay with their best interests? The prime minister assumes, and justifiably so, that the chance that Tehran will submit to sanctions without conditions is about the same as the chance that economic pressure will convince the Likud central committee to divide Jerusalem. And that’s about the same as an Iranian admission that Israel is allowed to have an atomic bomb ‏(as per foreign sources‏) along with Pakistan and India ‏(and that the large Islamic republic is a pariah and/or crazy‏).

But fresh sanctions are certainly having an effect on the Iranian leadership − and how! Its support for its protege, Syrian President Bashar Assad, who is mowing down the Sunnis in his country, has augmented Shiite Iran’s isolation and undermined its regional standing. These pressures are the reason behind the statement by Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi that his country is prepared to renew talks with the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council as well as Germany. Even our friend Dennis Ross, who recently left the team of senior advisers to President Obama and has returned to the Jerusalem-based Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, stated in recent days that the time is ripe for diplomatic initiatives in the Iranian arena.

The question is not whether to talk to the Iranians before shooting at them: The question is what to talk about, who does the talking, and how should it be done. For example, what would we do if Tehran announces that it is prepared to put an end to its nuclear plans and to open up its facilities for all to see, on condition that Israel signs the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and opens its facilities to inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency?

If Iran were to forgo its nuclear program and all the Arab states were to follow suit, the international community would ask, rightfully, why does Israel need a bomb? Whom does it have to deter? Either no country can have weapons of mass destruction, or all of them can. Sooner or later, Israel will have to agree to regional demilitarization.

In an article in The New York Times earlier this month, former American diplomats William Luers and Thomas Pickering recommended to Obama that he open diplomatic channels with Tehran, in the way that former President Nixon breached the diplomatic embargo on China. They proposed that Obama appoint a special envoy who enjoys the trust of the Iranians, to hold secret talks in an effort to prevent a conflagration. The president should equip his emissary with guarantees that military action would not be taken, and that public pressure on Iran would be lessened during any such contacts.

For the dialogue with Tehran to succeed, the insolent tone and threatening language of the Israeli government spokespeople and their neoconservative friends in the United States must be toned down.

The word “respect” appears in every speech by the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. In his speech a week ago to mark the anniversary of his country’s revolution, he stated that the door was open to negotiations “in a framework of justice and respect.”

Doron Pely, who has spent many years researching the mechanism of the Islamic sulha ‏(a means for resolving disputes‏), has drawn my attention to the decisive importance of the concept of respect in Islamic culture. He says that particularly in terms of the ancient Persian nation, respect is the main component in resolving disputes, particularly those with the West, and above all with Israel.

The sanctions, like the assassination of Iranian scientists, and like military activities in Iranian skies, can defer the development of a bomb for some years but they will not wipe it out. The best scientists have not been able to invent a weapon against national-religious respect. It is possible that ultimately there will be no choice but to shoot. But when missiles fall on us, we must know that we asked our friends to do their best to use all other options against the Iranians. Including speaking to them with respect and wisdom.