Behind Washington's Turnabout on Talks with Iran

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Modern Iran's Persian forebears claim to have invented the game of chess, and that heritage seems to be serving it well in the evolving diplomatic game between Tehran and Washington.

In a dramatic reversal of the Bush Administration's longstanding taboo on talking to the Islamic Republic, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice signaled Wednesday that the U.S. is willing to join three key European Union countries at the negotiating table with Iran, on the condition that Iran verifiably suspends its uranium enrichment activities. As Secretary Rice said, "President Bush wants a new and positive relationship between the American people and the people of Iran — a beneficial relationship of increased contacts in education, cultural exchange, sports, travel, trade, and investment... The United States looks forward to a new relationship between our peoples that advances these goals [global security, non-proliferation and ending terrorism]. We sincerely hope that the Iranian regime will choose to make that future possible."

Secretary Rice's offer comes on the eve of her meeting in Vienna with the foreign ministers of Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China to finalize a new package of incentives and threats to be presented to Tehran in the hope of persuading it to comply with Security Council demands. The Bush Administration's previous position with regards to Iran had been under mounting criticism from within the U.S. foreign policy establishment, and from key U.S. allies. Iran had also added to that pressure by combining its defiance of UN demands with repeated signals that it wants talks with Washington to resolve the standoff. And the Administration's previous insistence that the U.S. joining the process would somehow undermine the EU's diplomacy didn't seem very credible as long as those same EU players were arguing that their chances of success were slim without the U.S. at the table.

But by making the offer conditional on Iran suspending uranium enrichment, Secretary Rice hopes to turn the tables on Tehran. After all, though Iran is signaling an openness to negotiate a deal with the Europeans, it insists that it won't abrogate its right, under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, to enrich uranium. Tehran has signaled a flexibility on time frames, and also a willingness to consider importing its reactor fuel if it is allowed to maintain the small-scale uranium enrichment research facility it is currently operating at Natanz, albeit under closer international supervision. The U.S., Britain and France have rejected that possibility on the grounds that any enrichment activity gives Iran critical know-how for bomb production.

More than a month has passed since Iran failed to meet the Security Council's deadline to halt all uranium enrichment activities until it can resolve concerns expressed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) over its program. But with China and Russia firmly resisting moves by the U.S. and its allies to seek a resolution threatening sanctions, or worse, if Iran fails to comply, the U.S. and its allies beat a tactical retreat. They chose instead to improve the incentives offered to Iran in the hope of securing its compliance — or if it remains defiant — of bolstering support for punitive action.

The European package, according to drafts leaked to the media, will offer Tehran wide-ranging economic incentives, including the construction of a light-water nuclear reactor (which is difficult to use for bomb fuel) and the supply of reactor fuel. It would also offer Iran membership of a Gulf region security body whose principles include non-interference — a very roundabout way of addressing the issue of security guarantees.

And there is no doubt that security guarantees is the trickiest issue in terms of incentives for Iran, which wants the U.S. and other supporters of regime change to formally renounce any such goal. Secretary Rice stressed that the U.S. concerns are not limited to the nuclear issue, and extend to issues such as terrorism and Iraq. But Iran reportedly offered in April 2003 to engage in talks to address all such concerns, as well as the issue of Iranian support for Palestinian radical groups, and that offer was rebuffed by the Bush Administration. The troubles confronting the U.S. in both Iraq and Afghanistan, however, may also embolden Iran to drive a tougher bargain this time around. In both places Washington needs Tehran to use its influence in a positive manner.

While the Iranians are unlikely to simply accept the terms set by Secretary Rice, their mastery of diplomacy suggests they're also unlikely to flatly reject the offer. More likely, they'll come back with a more qualified, nuanced offer — not altogether different from the one made by Condi Rice. As long as both sides prefer to avoid a violent confrontation, that's the kind of careful chess game they'll continue to play.