Speed Read: Decoding the Iran Diplomacy

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Late Thursday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and top diplomats from the UK, France, Germany, the EU, Russia and China met in Vienna for eight and a half hours and emerged with what British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett hailed as† "a set of far reaching proposals" aimed at resolving the confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program.†

"We got the agreement we wanted to get,"† exulted a senior State Department official. But the group's† unusually terse statement, just seven sentences, raised as many questions as it answered.† Among them:

— What incentives does the group propose to offer Iran in exchange for abandoning its nuclear ambitions?† And what punishments will it impose if Iran continues to defy the international pressure and enrich uranium?

The US and its partners made a deal not to enumerate the "carrots"† and "sticks" before a European delegation presents them privately to Iranian leaders.† But they are known to include the enticement of a light water power reactor — whose radioactive fuel is hard to convert to use in a bomb — and the specter of† punishments ranging from† bank account freezes and travel bans to a full-scale economic embargo.†

—† Why doesn't the six-nation statment use the word "sanctions"?† For months, Rice and other top Bush administration officials have been loudly campaigning for UN Security Council sanctions to isolate Iran politically and economically if it persists in seeking the capability to make a nuclear bomb. But in Vienna,† the Americans and their partners never uttered the term, instead deploying circumlocutions such as† "steps"† and "measures."

The diplomats concluded that Iranians react so violently to the S word that for internal political reasons, the regime's leaders could not attend any negotiations in which sanctions were on the table.† To maximize the chances of Iranian cooperation, they agreed to forgo the S word.

— Russia and China, veto-wielding members of the Security Council, are also allergic to the notion of sanctions. Will they really go along with the US and Europeans on† a Security Council resolution invoking sanctions if Iran refuses the partners' demand to suspend enrichment and return to the table?††† †††††

Anything is possible. But US officials believe Russia and China have been driven to a tipping point by Iranís outrageous behavior. "The fundamental turning point was when Iran took the seals off the [enrichment] plant at the end of January," says a US official. "There was a sense in the room that we have to take concrete action to make it clear to the Iranians that there are two paths."

—How long does Iran have to consider the partners' proposal?

"Weeks," says a senior US diplomat.† "Not months."† Still, no formal deadline was set.

Does this diplomatic initiative, which includes a new US offer to join the Europeans, Russians and China at the table, stand a chance of succeeding? Or is it all rhetoric.

"We donít know,"† says a US official, " but we sure hope it will be successful."