As the next round of international talks over Iran's nuclear program approaches, both sides find themselves in familiar positions. Despite agreeing to use the nuclear non-proliferation treaty as the basis for a step-by-step approach based on reciprocity, the devil has remained in the details. Iran is pushing to broaden the agenda to include regional security issues, while the six global powers prefer to keep the focus solely on Iran's nuclear program.
This is nothing new. Iran has on numerous occasions repeated its interest in going beyond the most difficult issue on the table -- its nuclear program -- and discussing additional regional security issues such as Syria, Bahrain, Afghanistan and Iraq. While there is a basis for dialogue on these issues, such discussions cannot happen if Iranian officials will not talk to their American counterparts directly.
In Moscow, Iran must not repeat the disastrous mistake that it has made on three successive occasions -- January 2011 in Istanbul, April 2012 in Istanbul, and May 2012 in Baghdad. During those meetings, Iran's chief negotiator Saeed Jalili was under direct instructions to avoid a bilateral meeting with his American counterpart.
Adding insult to injury is the fact that now-Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and current Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman are two of only a handful of senior U.S. officials that will seriously consider Iranian concerns. Burns and Jalili had a productive meeting in 2009 on the sidelines of negotiations in Geneva. In addition to discussing the oft-mentioned Tehran Research Reactor deal, Burns made clear to Jalili that America's interest in dialogue is not just about Iran's nuclear program -- but rather about finding new ways to engage on a range of issues.
Tragically, those 2009 talks are the only direct, high-level talks between the U.S. and Iran during Barack Obama's presidency.
If Iranian negotiators won't talk to Sherman in Moscow, they can rest assured that almost no one else in Washington will listen to them. Tehran knows the opportunity is there. The Obama administration will continue to doubt Tehran's sincerity in negotiations if Iranian decision-makers insist on administering this massive self-inflicted wound.
Iranian and American officials must resume talks at that high level again -- and about much more than Iran's nuclear program. As Washington prepares for talks in Moscow, it should use the P5+1 mechanism to privately convey a key message to Tehran: Wendy Sherman looks forward to a 30-minute to one hour-long bilateral meeting with Saeed Jalili. This is non-negotiable, and she is prepared to listen to Iranian concerns on all issues. In the immediate round of talks following Moscow, Sherman is willing to explore areas for potential agreement and further discussion after reporting back to their respective capitals.
Few doubt the high degree of discipline in Iran's diplomacy. But when that discipline represents a nervous diplomatic strategy with little creativity or ingenuity in style, it makes Iranian negotiators one-dimensional. Long gone are the days of former chief nuclear negotiator, Hassan Rowhani -- a tough advocate for Iran's interests, but pragmatic enough to operate with eloquence and credibility in an effort to keep a modicum of cooperation alive.
Conflict between America and Iran has reached the precipice of war, and there is more than enough blame to go around. Miscommunication, misperceptions and miscalculations by both sides have created a self-perpetuating cycle of escalation. Now, for the first time in decades, they are engaged in a sustained diplomatic process. With an uncertain U.S. presidential election looming, this may be Tehran's last best chance to do its part in untangling the mutual demonization driving the conflict. Iran must make up its mind. Its decision on whether to engage the U.S. directly in Moscow will be telling.
Reza Marashi is director of research at the National Iranian American Council.
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