How the U.S. Plans to Tackle Iran

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Caren Firouz / Reuters

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice never once used the word "isolate" in connection with Iran during her three appareances on Sunday political talk shows. That may be some kind of a record, since Rice rarely misses an opportunity to call for isolating Tehran until it abandons its uranium-enrichment activities and its support for radical groups in the Middle East. But it would be hard for Rice to demand the isolation of Iran when, in a dramatic course correction approved by President Bush, the Secretary of State plans to sit across a table with her Iranian counterpart, Manoucher Mottaki, at a conclave of Middle Eastern foreign ministers focused on stabilizing Iraq.

In fact, at some point during the so-called "neighbor's conference" convened by the Iraqi government and held in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh, Rice may even go so far as meeting one-on-one with Mottaki. "I wouldn't rule it out," she told ABC's George Stephanopoulos, "because this is not a meeting about the United States and Iran; this is a meeting about Iraq and about what Iraq's neighbors and interested parties can do to help stabilize the situation in Iraq."

The change of tack by the Bush Administration may reflect the mixed results of its efforts to isolate Iran: On the one hand, the U.S. has managed to overcome Russian and Chinese objections to secure two important U.N. Security Council sanctions resolutions turning up the heat on Iran, and it has managed to constrict Iran's access to global capital markets. But despite the pressure, none of these actions has prompted Tehran to change course. And many of the governments on which the U.S. would rely to implement an isolation strategy — friendly Arab leaders and the Europeans — have strongly echoed calls by the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group for the U.S. to engage directly with Tehran.

Not that the Sharm el-Sheikh encounter presages a thaw in U.S.-Iranian relations: Rice sees the step as necessitated by tactical flexibility, but she holds fast to the Bush Administration view that Iran is the engine of much of the violence and chaos in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. As she tells it, the encounter in Sharm will be more of a lecture than an exchange, with the U.S. berating Iran over arms and fighters crossing into Iraq, the actions of militias and so on. Iran is not likely to be moved by those charges, which it routinely denies, nor does it accept lectures from U.S. leaders.

Even if the two sides remain at loggerheads, U.S. officials believe the encounter is an opportunity to "put the Iranians on the record, at the ministerial level, that they are making commitments to the Iraqis to help solve their problems." Washington hopes that if Iran makes security commitments to Iraq's government and the governments of the region, the onus will be on Tehran to curb its covert meddling and make a positive contribution. Such engagement is premised less on the idea that more radical elements in Iran's leadership will change their ways than on the prospects for a more pragmatic outlook in Tehran. "It's not a matter of looking for moderates in Iran," Rice said recently. "I don't think there are any in this regime; but it is a matter of looking for reasonable people who might want to have a different course."

The Iranians will bring complaints of their own to Sharm el-Sheikh, and insist that Iraq's security crisis can't be resolved while U.S. forces remain in the country. If Rice is hoping that influential Arab moderates will echo the U.S. position, she may be disappointed. Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, who earlier this year denounced the U.S. occupation of Iraq as "illegitimate," recently turned down a request from Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to meet in Saudi Arabia before the Sharm conference. "The Saudi king's schedule was not suitable for the timing," Iraqi foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari said on CNN Sunday.