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Saturday, September 27, 2008

Barack Obama Explains Why It's a Bad Idea to Negotiate With Iran

Last night, one of the things that Barack Obama said was that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may not be the one that we should negotiate with because he may merely be a figurehead. This brings up an interesting point about that country. It's a totalitarian regime, and no one is really sure who is in charge. It maybe Ahmadinejad, or it maybe the Mullahs, or it maybe someone else we don't even know about. George Chang described a similar problem when negotiating with China.

As an initial matter, China's central government moves slowly during crises, largely due to the fragmented nature of decision making in the Chinese capital. There are numerous civilian and military factions that must be consulted and won over before anyone can speak on behalf of the central government. In 2001, for instance, the fragile coalition that ruled China took days to decide what to say and do after a reckless Chinese fighter pilot clipped an unarmed Navy reconnaissance plane, which was forced to land on China's Hainan island.

Since then, Chinese officials have tried to clarify and streamline their decision-making process, but recent evidence shows that not much progress has been made. In November, China denied Hong Kong port-call privileges to the Kitty Hawk strike group on the day before Thanksgiving. On the day of the denial, Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi told President Bush that the turndown had been the result of a "misunderstanding." Yet a few hours later the Foreign Ministry in Beijing repudiated Yang's characterization of events.

In other words, if we don't know who is in charge, we also don't know who to negotiate with. Just imagine if Ahmadinejad is just a figurehead and yet Obama sits down with him thinking he is in charge. Then, not only was he legitimized with the meeting, but we were negotiating with someone with no power.

The problem with what Obama said is that he is under the impression that he will figure out who is in charge. Unless he has some secret plan he isn't telling anyone about, that is unlikely. Iran has a closed off society and only those in charge know who is in charge. It isn't like negotiating with France where the leader is clear.

The only way to really know who is in charge is to have a double agent in proximity of the leadership of Iran. That may in fact what we have, however it is highly unlikely that if we did, Barack Obama would know. As a Senator it is unlikely he has such clearance. In other words, Barack Obama is ready to negotiate, himself as President, even though he isn't sure if the person he will be negotiating with holds any power.

Furthermore, as Secretary Kissinger later explained, the problem with negotiating at the highest levels right away is that if those talks fail there is nowhere to go. If his own meeting doesn't work out, will he then send his Secretary of State to negotiate with their counterpart?

In other words, there, in a nutshell, is why Barack Obama's plan for direct negotiations is as naive as his opponents say it is.

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