Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Not So Fast

What to Make of Ahmadinejad's Olive Branch
The Soviets famously sent two messages to John F. Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis--one bellicose, the other offering a path toward peace. Kennedy ignored the bellicose one and prevented a nuclear war. Now we're getting mixed messages from the Iranians. On Friday, Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani gave a bellicose anti-American speech at the Munich Security Conference. Today, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad extends an olive branch. Which message is real?
Hint: not Ahmadinejad's, although his shouldn't be ignored. Larijani is a trusted advisor to the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Ahmadinejad is running for re-election as President with very low popularity, given his failed domestic policies and his poisonous blather overseas. My guess is this is an image-softening election ploy. In any case, a ranking European diplomat told me last week, "We want to be dealing with the Supreme Leader's emissaries."
As I've written here before, the approach to Iran is best made carefully, circuitously. We need to make a deal with Russians first--the obvious one is suspending any plans for an anti-missile system in return for verifiable Russian support for the UN's efforts to prevent Iran from developing a bomb. We should also re-establish relations with Iran's ally, Syria...and we should offer to resume cooperation with Iran in Afghanistan. All these initiatives should be well under way before Iran's June elections. Only then, after Ahmadinejad's fate is decided, should we launch direct, high-level talks between a U.S. envoy and a significant player, like Larijani, with a direct line to the Supreme Leader.
In the meantime, we appreciate the olive branch, Mr. Ahmadinejad. We have great respect for your nation and civilization--especially your ancestor, Cyrus the Great, who allowed the Jews to return to Israel and thereby became the ancient world's most famous non-Jewish Zionist.
Joe Klein is TIME's political columnist and author of six books, most recently Politics Lost. His weekly TIME column, "In the Arena," covers national and international affairs.