Covering the visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to New York makes good copy, and the media has tended to emphasize his more colorful and objectionable comments. When Ahmadinejad questions the Jewish claim to Israel, he gets plenty of headlines, and deservedly so. As president of Iran, his words matter and he is accountable for them.
But when he puts forward what might be constructive offers on the nuclear negotiations or ending the violence in Syria, he is often ignored or dismissed as irrelevant, a lame duck, a liar or on the losing end of a power struggle with Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
I attended two meetings with President Ahmadinejad last week. As he is still the president of Iran, and that should carry some weight with policy makers and diplomats, I found most noteworthy his proposals signaling potential openings to defuse the nuclear crisis with Iran and end the civil war in Syria.
On Iran’s nuclear program, Ahmadinejad said in New York that his previous offer for Iran to end its production of 20% enriched uranium if the enriched uranium was provided to Iran for its nuclear medical-research reactor is “still on the table.” He repeated the offer at a press conference in Tehran on Oct. 2, saying “anytime they give us this fuel we will feel no need to produce the costly fuel of 20%.”
This is the same offer he made during the UN General Assembly meetings in 2011, but this initiative was overtaken by the accusations of the Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States and was ignored by Washington.
In March I wrote in Al-Monitor that the US should test Iran’s intentions by taking up this offer. Getting Iran to halt 20% enrichment is not the endgame, but it is an essential first step. The talks will go nowhere until Iran halts enrichment at this level.
Ahmadinejad gave further clues as how to break out of the impasse in the nuclear negotiations. He reaffirmed last week that the Tehran Declaration, agreed by Iran, Turkey and Brazil in May 2010, in which Iran agreed to ship 1,200 kilograms of low-enriched uranium to Turkey in return for 120 kilograms of 20%-enriched uranium fuel, under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the US, France and Russia, is also still on the table and welcomed US participation in building an Iranian civilian nuclear power plant.
On Syria, I wrote last week that Ahmadinejad had undertaken a new diplomatic initiative to end the ‘tribal warfare.' My colleague Laura Rozen reported that Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi has held a flurry of top-level diplomatic meetings in New York on Syria, including with Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN/Arab League Special Envoy for Syria. Most significantly, Salehi said Iran supports Brahimi’s mediation efforts, adding, “We are cognizant of the fact that Iran cannot take the lead” in mediation efforts on Syria … "so as the case with other countries that have taken the other side. So we stressed that we have to support Mr. Brahimi’s initiative and mission.”
The US does not need to embrace Ahmadinejad’s offerings on Iran and Syria, but they should not be dead on arrival either. The US can put Iran to the test. Let the next nuclear talks begin with a straight-up offer by the US and its P5+1 partners (Russia, China, France, the UK and Germany) to sell Iran the enriched uranium it needs, under IAEA supervision, in return for a halt in 20% enrichment.
If Iran bites, the US should put aside the stultifying formality of the P5+1 structure and establish sub-ministerial working groups to implement the deal as soon as possible.
The US could also recognize Iran’s role in helping to facilitate a negotiated, diplomatic settlement in Syria, perhaps even to find a Syrian Medvedev acceptable to all parties. There is an emerging regional consensus about the need for a negotiated outcome and a role for Iran. The US should encourage this trend.
It is also past due for the US to open a direct channel to facilitate communication on Afghanistan, Iraq, al-Qaeda and other matters of common interest.
Andrew Parasiliti is CEO and Editor at Large of Al-Monitor.