WASHINGTON, DC – Rearranging the deck chairs would not have saved the Titanic. Nor did the endless debates on the shape of the table in the Vietnam negotiations advance the effort to end that malign conflict. Nevertheless, many American presidents have successfully redesigned talks with adversaries in bold new ways to strengthen national security without war. Such boldness is now needed in the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.
In 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt negotiated personally with Soviet Foreign Minister Maxim Litvinov to open diplomatic relations between the two countries. Dwight D. Eisenhower invited Nikita Khrushchev to the United States in 1959 to open the eyes of the first Soviet leader ever to visit America. The bilateral US-China talks in Warsaw in the 1960’s were fruitless until Richard M. Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger opened a different, more direct discussion through the auspices of Pakistan.
International negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program also need a new concept and broader agenda. The Istanbul meeting last month concluded on a positive note. Both sides decided to find a way to avoid the pattern of mutual recrimination and sterile exchanges. The door is now open to an initial agreement with modest goals.
But don’t count on a new era without some form of direct US-Iran discussions. The talks with the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) are formulaic, stagnant, and not likely to achieve any breakthrough on their own. The Iranians feel out-numbered by diverse participants with varying agendas. The US needs to reshape the environment to make it easier for Iran to compromise.