Washington's Mixed Signals on Iran

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David Y. Lee / Atlaspress for TIME

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

One day the Bush Administration is bashing Iran, pushing U.N. Security Council sanctions, cutting off its credit, arresting its nationals and sending more warships into the Persian Gulf. Then, practically the next day it seems, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is announcing plans for U.S. and Iranian diplomats to meet in Baghdad to discuss cooperating to quell the carnage in Iraq.

Mixed messages? For sure. But that's not by accident. It's just a new take on the classic carrot-and-stick diplomatic strategy, in which contradictions are at the core of the U.S. Iran strategy.

"It is a message of pressure and possibility," says a senior U.S. official. "We're trying to keep up the pressure but also hold open the possibility of constructive dialogue, if they meet the conditions."

Rice made front page news with her disclosure Tuesday that the U.S. would send a representative — most probably Zalmay Khalilzad, the outgoing U.S. Ambassador to Iran, or his successor, Ryan Crocker — to meet face to face with Middle East diplomats,including envoys from Iran and Syria. The occasion is a "neighbors' meeting" that the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is convening March 10 in hopes of getting help stabilizing Iraq.

It's not actually a new idea. Back in the fall of 2005, the White House and Rice authorized Khalilzad to meet with Iranian officials about Iraqi violence. The meetings didn't happen and by the next spring the idea faded as the war of words between Washington and Tehran heated up.

It will be bigger news if the second, higher-level security conference comes off in April, as planned, which Rice herself intends to attend. She will make more headlines by sitting at the same table with the Iranian and Syrian foreign ministers, despite her condemnation of those nations for contributing to instability and bloodshed in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories — and, in Iran's case, for seeking the capability to make nuclear weapons.

Still the group will be large — ministers from the Arab world, the G-8 industrialized nations and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council have been invited, along with representatives from the United Nations and other international organizations — and officials say Rice doesn't anticipate breaking away into a one-on-one session with the Iranian delegate. Nor, they say, does she intend to allow the discussion to veer off into the issue of Iran's nuclear activities now before the U.N. Security Council. (On Thursday, in a conference call with his counterparts from the other Perm-Five nations, Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, Rice's point man for Iran's nukes, hopes to reach agreement on terms for the next round of sanctions.)

During the April meeting in Baghdad, says a U.S. official, Rice "is not going to hide in the corner. If she has a chance to bring up EFPs [explosively formed penetrators], she will," referring to U.S. assertions that Iran has been sending these vicious high-tech bombs to Shi'ite militias in Iraq.

One reason Rice is touting U.S. participation in the Baghdad meetings is to answer critics — including the Iraq Study Group, led by former Secretary of State James Baker, as well as Arab and European leaders — who have urged the Administration to engage broadly with Tehran and also Damascus. But the Administration is keeping the bar high by insisting that the Baghdad talks will deal only with Iraq's security and that there will be no formal negotiations with Iran on the nuclear issue until it freezes its uranium enrichment work as ordered by the Security Council. Another reason behind Rice's move is to put Tehran on the spot: if U.S. envoys show up in Baghdad and Iranian diplomats don't, the U.S. believes it would be able to harden its case in the U.N. that the regime can't be trusted.

But some analysts find these disclaimers disingenuous and suspect that the Administration is edging toward a real reversal because it realizes its policy of isolating the Iranian regime has only made matters worse. "My reading is, Rice is ready to cave, meaning she's ready to negotiate without preconditions, and she's looking for a venue to do it," says Ray Takeyh, author of Hidden Iran: Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic. If Rice doesn't want to lay the groundwork for talking to the Iranians and Syrians, says Takeyh, why bother to attend the Baghdad conference? "The Americans don't need a conference to talk to the others," he says.

Certainly the mixed-signals strategy has generated a good deal of confusion. On Wednesday, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack contended that U.S. Iran policy was not, as various news reports portrayed it, "going wobbly, shift, turnabout, change." "There's no change in our policy," he insisted. "There's no change in our policy."

But like many others, Takeyh is more confused than convinced. "For the first time in this melodrama," he says, "the Iranians are easier to understand than the Americans. I don't get it."