A proposed bill would shut down the U.S.'s unofficial contacts there, terminate discussion with Iran about ending its nuclear program, and fundamentally misunderstand how diplomacy works
A woman walks past an anti U.S. mural at the former U.S. embassy in Tehran / Reuters
Working its way through the congressional digestive tract like a poison pill is one of the worst ideas in modern legislative history: a bill that would make it illegal to conduct diplomacy with Iran.
In an almost unprecedented move, the Iran Threat Reduction Act of 2011 (H.R. 1905) includes a clause that reads, "No person employed with the United States Government may contact in an official or unofficial capacity any person that ... is an agent, instrumentality, or official of, is affiliated with, or is serving as a representative of the Government of Iran."
The notion of outlawing contact with Iran is one of those ideas that at first glance sounds merely awful -- and then upon reflection, seems truly dreadful.
The United States does not have formal relations with Iran but Washington engages in a variety of unofficial contacts, most of which would become illegal. The bill would outlaw discussion with Iran about ways to end its nuclear program, even though this is a supposed aim of U.S. foreign policy. It would also stop the United States and Iran from cooperating in areas like Afghanistan, where there is actually some overlap of interests in avoiding a Taliban resurgence.
The bill is based on some severe illusions. The first fallacy is that it will somehow shut off all communication with Iran. Face-to-face contacts, however, are just one of many forms of bargaining between countries. Every time an American president makes a speech about Iran, or moves military forces around the world, he sends a signal about our interests and intentions. If this bill passes, we'll still communicate with Iran -- it just won't be face-to-face. Instead, we'll shout at them from across the street, with a good chance they won't understand what we're saying.
The second misunderstanding is the mistaken notion that diplomacy is, in the words of CIA analyst Paul Pillar, "some kind of reward for the other guy, rather than what it really is: a tool for our side." Talking to the adversary is a strategy for getting what we want, by helping us understand the opponent's interests and objectives. As veteran diplomats Thomas Pickering and William Luers put it, "this preposterous law would make it illegal for the U.S. to know its enemy."
The third illusion is that not talking to Americans will be an intolerable experience for Iran. Don't get me wrong -- I talk to Americans every day, and I understand the appeal. But while shunning might work in the Amish community, the record is less impressive in international diplomacy. Tehran is likely to respond to the silent treatment by shrugging its shoulders and plowing on with its nuclear program.
The law would allow only one exception to the "zero diplomacy" rule. If a president believes there exists "an unusual and extraordinary threat to the vital national security interests of the United States," the White House can speak to Iran -- but only after giving 15 days advance notice of any contact to Congress.
If a crisis with Iran suddenly erupted, however, we might not have 15 days to sit around and drum our fingers before talking. Waiting two weeks for jaw-jaw increases the odds of war.
Consider the Cuban Missile Crisis. In October 1962, President John F. Kennedy discovered Soviet missile sites being secretly built in Cuba, and used direct and indirect contacts to get the weapons removed. The entire crisis lasted 13 days. If a similar law had existed back in 1962, Kennedy would have needed to give Congress 15 days notice of his plan to talk to Moscow -- even while construction of the missile sites continued. Bobby Kennedy's memoir of the crisis wouldn't be titled Thirteen Days -- it would be called 28 Days Later.
Alternatively, we may have to negotiate the freeing of American captives, like the hikers recently held in Iran. Under the proposed rule, we couldn't start discussing their release for 15 days. As the prisoners rotted in an Iranian jail, they would have plenty of time to curse the day this absurd law was ever dreamt up.