Iran Plays to the Middle Ground

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Iran's fire-breathing president took time off between threats to annihilate Israel and make life hell for America to dash off a letter to President Bush proposing "new solutions" to "the current fragile situation in the world." As improbable as the conciliatory tone may sound from the usually bellicose Ahmadinejad, it may represent a smart shift in diplomatic strategy at a moment when the U.S. is struggling to forge an international consensus to turn up the heat on Tehran.

"Iran is playing games," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had said last week, in response to an Iranian offer to restore snap inspections of its nuclear sites if the West called off its drive for U.N. action against Tehran. And Rice dismissed the latest letter as doing nothing to solve the growing nuclear crisis — hardly surprising, since it reportedly consisted mostly of a rambling, philosophical scolding of the Bush administration. Still, the very fact that Ahmedinajad sent the first public communication by an Iranian leader with Washington since 1979 suggests Tehran may be starting to intensify its diplomatic game, seeking to court allies and to neutralize those of its main adversary, the U.S. Indeed, what was most notable about Tehran's latest move was that, unlike other reported attempts in recent years by the Iranian leadership to hold secret negotiations with Washington, this one was made public by the Iranians. By making (or seeming to make) a conciliatory gesture, Iran is playing to the gallery.

Tehran's announcement was timed to coincide with a meeting in New York between representatives of the five veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council to discuss an Anglo-French resolution — backed by the U.S. — that would threaten sanctions if Iran fails to halt enrichment. The meeting failed to achieve agreement, as China and Russia remained firmly opposed to a resolution even threatening sanctions. Moscow and Beijing are urging both sides to take more steps to cool the atmosphere of confrontation and seek a diplomatic compromise. But the prime target for a new diplomatic push from Iran, however, may be the U.S. allies in Europe, led by Germany — and backed by a growing number of voices in the U.S. political establishment — urging the Bush administration to hold direct talks with Iran as part of the search for a diplomatic solution. As long as the Bush administration maintains its refusal to talk to Tehran, Iran's leaders can see a diplomatic advantage in portraying themselves as open for dialogue.

"This letter is not the place that one would find an opening to engage on the nuclear issue or anything of the sort," Secretary of State Rice responded. "It isn't addressing the issues that we're dealing with in a concrete way." But Ahmedinajad's treatise may well be followed by other attempts from Tehran to engage more substantially on the nuclear issue.