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Column: Small steps best in dealing with Iran confrontation


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With the United States locked in confrontation with Iran, was it good or bad for diplomacy that “Argo,” a movie about U.S. spies getting the best of the Iranians, won this year’s Academy Award for best picture?

Depends on whom you ask. To Iran’s government, “Argo” was nothing more than anti-Iranian propaganda — “an advertisement for the CIA,” according to the state-run television network — not to mention that the Oscar, suspiciously enough, was awarded by Michelle Obama.

But to young Iranians who have watched the movie on bootleg DVDs, “Argo” has been an opportunity to view the hostage crisis of 1979 and 1980 through American eyes for the first time.

“‘Argo’ has forced people in Iran to confront a very ugly episode in their past, and that’s probably a good thing,” says John W. Limbert, one of the 52 American hostages who didn’t get smuggled out of the country by the CIA and spent more than a year imprisoned in Tehran.

That strange mix of good news and bad news runs across the rest of the tangled U.S.-Iranian relationship as well.

Iran, the United States and five other big powers are holding a new round of talks over Iran’s nuclear program this week; and though no breakthroughs are anticipated, the fact that the talks have occurred at all was taken by diplomats as mildly good news.

The United States and its allies presented a proposal for a modest relaxation of the economic sanctions (which have driven inflation in Iran above 30 percent) if Tehran agrees to stop enriching uranium to a high grade, ship any highly enriched nuclear fuel out of the country and close a once-secret uranium enrichment plant. Iran didn’t buy it, but the mere fact that Iranian diplomats agreed to discuss limits on nuclear enrichment — something their government has insisted is an untouchable right — was a step in the right direction.

Even before the talks began, Iran made a series of contradictory moves. It continued to enrich uranium toward the level that would be useful for nuclear weapons but then announced that it had converted some of that uranium to reactor fuel, which isn’t easily converted for military use. It announced that it was installing a new generation of centrifuges to enrich uranium, but it put them at a plant that it has opened to United Nations inspections in the past.

“I wouldn’t say its clear progress,” said Limbert, who spent 22 more years as a U.S. diplomat after he was released from Tehran and helped direct U.S.-Iran policy during the Obama administration’s first term. “It’s more like walking around in circles.”

That may be as much as we can expect right now, given the political gridlock in Tehran and Washington, along with the domestic pressure on politicians in both countries to sound tough instead of weak.

Iran is in the early stage of a presidential campaign, with an election scheduled for June 14; nobody expects any Iranian politician to make significant concessions to the West before then, any more than we would have expected President Barack Obama to offer much to Iran during his campaign.

Iran has bureaucratic politics in its government as well. Leaders of the radical Revolutionary Guard regularly denounce the idea of negotiations with foreign powers, leaving diplomats such as Mohammad Khazaee, Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, to reassure foreign officials that they didn’t really mean it.

And at the top of the system is Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a still-young 73, bitterly anti-American, devoted to the Islamic Revolution and, as a clerical politician, famous for being indecisive.

Not the ingredients you’d choose for a complicated set of negotiations.

Is there a way forward?

“It’s important to start small and use small steps to build trust,” said Thomas Pickering, a former top State Department official who has engaged in unofficial talks with Iran (and who recently appeared together with Khazaee at New York’s Asia Society).

Don’t shoot for big, splashy agreements with Tehran — that just gives opponents on both sides something to shoot at. Besides, the idea of a grand bargain with the United States appears to make Khamenei nervous.

The pattern of the past few months, in which Iran has made encouraging moves outside formal negotiations, may offer a lesson. “Don’t ever insist that they make concessions publicly,” Limbert said. “They may take steps that we like, but they’re never going to admit that they did it under pressure.”

Above all, Limbert said, “don’t give up. It’s not going to work the first time.”

The second half of 2013 may turn out to be a promising window for diplomacy with Iran. The Iranian presidential election will be over. The U.S. presidential election is already over. Iran’s action in converting enriched uranium to nonmilitary reactor fuel has reduced pressure from Israel for immediate action.

At that point, the biggest danger may be political gridlock in Tehran, abetted by indecisive leaders who hesitate to embrace a grand bargain in the face of pressure from their zealous followers. Sound familiar?

Doyle McManus is a columnist for The Los Angeles Times. Readers may send him email at doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com.

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