The Benefits Of Talking To Iran

Two weeks ago, Israel’s Haaretz reported that, according to U.S. diplomatic cables provided by WikiLeaks, “Senior defense officials ruled out an Israeli military attack on Iran’s nuclear sites as early as five and a half years ago.”

Lara Friedman of Americans for Peace Now tweeted out the story, asking “What about that Goldberg spin?”, a reference to Jeffrey Goldberg’s September 2010 article in the Atlantic Monthly, in which Goldberg asserted an Israeli consensus “that there is a better than 50 percent chance that Israel will launch a strike [on Iran] by next July.”

It wasn’t an unreasonable question. Goldberg’s article, while informative of a particular strain of Israeli defense thinking, was criticized when published, based both on its own clear biases, and Goldberg’s own past erroneous reporting in support of the Iraq invasion, as well as his tendency to act as Bibi Netanyahu’s messenger of fear. And while positions of governments can and do change over time, the Haaretz story raised, at the very least, questions about the actual strength of the consensus that Goldberg had described.

Friedman’s tweet was, however, simply too much of an affront to Goldberg, who posted a snotty (and obviously nervous) response. Friedman very effectively responded to Goldberg here, which Goldberg dismissed as “indignant,” which is apparently Goldberg-speak for “She wiped the floor with me.”

His feelings obviously still quite hurt, Goldberg took another swipe at Friedman and her organization yesterday, and in the process revealed that, even though he has described himself as a supporter of Obama’s Iran policy, he doesn’t quite understand it. Calling APN’s support for no-precondition talks with Iran “naive”, Goldberg wrote:

No one in the Obama Administration, including its most dovish officials, actually believes that Iran will respond positively to yet another American overture. Any understanding of Iran today begins with the fact that anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism are two of the pillars sustaining the regime. There is a vanishingly small chance that the Iranian regime will undermine its own ideology by responding to Obama’s call for dialogue, especially now that Iran has seen what America is capable of doing to countries that have given up their nuclear programs. The story of Libya is one the Iranian leadership is studying carefully. It is safe to guess that Iran, watching Libya, is more committed than ever to crossing the nuclear threshold.

Well, I suppose you could guess. Or, if one were more interested in accuracy, you could actually pay attention to what U.S. officials have said about Iran’s nuclear intentions, which is that while the regime continues to move forward on a number of fronts related to its nuclear program, there’s still no evidence that Iran has made a decision to obtain a nuclear weapon. The belief inside the administration, based on a number of recent conversations, is that the Iranians understand that the costs of obtaining a weapon — far greater international opprobrium, hostility, isolation, and sanctions — actually outweigh the benefits.

I don’t think it requires guessing, however, to understand the centrality of anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism to the Iranian regime’s ideology. Goldberg is right about this, which is precisely why he’s wrong about continuing to offer talks with Iran. Whether or not continuing to talk will result in an agreement over the nuclear issue (I tend to agree at that it probably won’t), according to Iranian democracy activists like Shirin Ebadi and Akbar Ganji, President Obama’s engagement policy has, by blunting one of the regime’s most treasured propaganda tools, had an important effect on the political discourse within Iran.

As Israeli Iran analyst Meir Javedanfar put it on a recent panel, “This [Iranian] regime is far more scared of peace than it is of war“:

The reason why hundreds of thousands of people poured onto the streets of Tehran in June of 2009 was not because somebody came and said ‘We’re going to bomb Iran.’ No, it’s because somebody went into the White House who called this regime’s bluff by recognizing it. This is the worst thing you can do to your enemy, to unmask them. President Obama showed the world that this regime is not interested in reaching out to the West, by getting close to them. And that brought hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets of Tehran, because they saw what the regime had been telling them — and telling us — about America is a lie.

The offer of no-precondition talks that Goldberg dismisses as “naive” has functioned, and continues to function, as a form of pressure on the Iranian regime, revealing its recalcitrance both to the international community and, just as importantly, to a domestic Iranian audience that has been told for decades that America desires its destruction. It has also put the administration in a much better position to escalate its focus on Iran’s human rights abuses, as it has begun doing. This sort of careful diplomacy and strategic messaging may not be as immediately gratifying as beating one’s chest about air strikes, but it does have the benefit of, you know, working.


Lara Friedman has ably responded, again, to Goldberg here.

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