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Time to Talk to Iran

Sanctions are needed to get Iran's attention, but negotiations are equally important before considering military action.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee today takes up the issue of how to deal with Iran—just as President Bush makes his pitch to the United Nations for global economic sanctions amid Tehran’s continued defiance of the United Nations over its suspected nuclear weapons program.

Economic sanctions make perfect sense if Iran does not step back from its stand-off with the U.N. and the International Atomic Energy Agency, but recent careless talk about the U.S.-inspired “regime change” in that country must also be addressed directly. How? The Bush administration needs to engage in direct negotiations with Iran.

U.S. conservatives talk about sparking regime change in Tehran via U.S. military strikes on Iran’s military and nuclear installations, believing that everyday Iranians want to throw out their country’s current rulers in favor of reformist. But like it or not, the conservative regime led by current President Mahmoud Ahmandinejad is likely to remain in power for some time to come.

Although he’s unpopular, the majority of Iranians would surely rally to his side if the United States attacked their country. Iranians do have many complaints about Ahmandinejad–indeed, at almost every other level, Iranians find their president and other hardliners to be mostly inept and corrupt. Nonetheless, they are proud of his defiance against the U.S.

That’s why the threat of economic sanctions in tandem with serious negotiations to end Iran’s suspected pursuit of nuclear weapons is the correct policy for Washington to follow. Iran is five to ten years away from actually building a nuclear weapon, which means now’s the time to demonstrate to Iran’s citizens the grave economic cost of Ahmadinejad’s defiance through economic sanctions.

At the same time, negotiating with Tehran would demonstrate that the U.S. is not intent on attacking Iran, which in turn would show the Iranian people that any economic suffering on their part rests with their hard-line leaders, not those in Washington. The Bush administration continues to oppose direct talks with Iran when America has everything to gain from direct diplomacy and very little to lose over the next several years.

Iranian society today is a complex mix of religious fervor, strong nationalist sentiments, and pervasive economic unease. Regime change would only strengthen the more hard-line tendencies in Iran today. Carefully arranged direct negotiations in league with calibrated sanctions just might focus Iranians’ minds on what they really want—a prosperous, more open society rather than further diplomatic and economic isolation in pursuit of weapons that might one day lead to war and destruction.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has an obligation to all of us to advise the president on this critical issue. The panel’s leaders should follow the lead of other bipartisan efforts elsewhere in the Senate to help restore our nation’s reputation in the international community, specifically by persuading the Bush administration to negotiate before considering any ill-conceived military action.

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