Opening With a Trap Door

By Jim Hoagland
Thursday, March 23, 2006

Ask administration hard-liners about Iran's sudden acceptance of the U.S. offer to talk about stability in Iraq and you hear this reaction: It's a booby trap. These hawks are right.

Put the same question to moderates on the Bush team and this is the response: It's an opening in the confrontation and a necessary step toward an exit strategy for Iraq. The remarkable thing is that these doves are right, too.

President Bush must treat the Iranian decision to open discussions in Baghdad as trap and opportunity. It is both. The administration should pursue this small opening in the Iranian wall with discipline and attention to maintaining a united front with its European and Asian partners. They are Iran's immediate targets.

The Iranians will certainly suggest to Europe, Japan and India that the United States is dealing behind its allies' backs to protect its interests in Iraq. The Iranians are masters at playing on others' divisions, often by inviting them to exploit simulated divisions on the Iranian side. Thus the endless arguments over Iran's "moderates."

The Bush team must make the Baghdad talks one insulated part of a coordinated three-pronged approach to Iran. Contacts with Iran must be managed as hard-nosed diplomacy that will go to the brink -- but not be carried over it by bluster and inflexibility.

The White House rightly insists that the Baghdad talks be limited to practical steps for defusing the crisis in Iraq. Discussion in Baghdad of Iran's nuclear ambitions, now under scrutiny in the U.N. Security Council, or other broad topics would undermine the allied unity that has brought the complaint against Iran this far.

The State Department hopes to get a declaration from the Security Council in about two weeks that ostensibly gives the Iranians a final chance to suspend their nuclear enrichment program and return to negotiations with the European Union and Russia.

The statement is in fact a necessary step toward new U.N. negotiations over a resolution imposing sanctions on Iran. "The Europeans need to show their publics that they have jumped through all the hoops" before threatening sanctions, a U.S. official says. Washington is cooperating in this approach.

To reduce the danger that Iran will use the Baghdad talks as a divisive ploy, the United States should now join -- and lead -- the negotiating effort over enrichment. After the move to talk to Iran in Baghdad, the Bush administration cannot remain a silent, outside partner at the top rung of the negotiating ladder. And U.S. direct involvement provides the only hope of getting the Iranians back to the table.

The threat of sanctions has already triggered a counterthreat from Iran to use oil as a weapon. Washington must lead in establishing a credible international emergency energy-sharing program to confront that bad-case scenario. "We have to say to the Iranians together that we will endure a cold winter or two but they will be harmed even more by an oil boycott," says a senior European politician who has studied Iranian negotiating behavior extensively.

U.S. officials recognize that U.N. action might not be sufficient or even forthcoming. They now speak of a "diplomatic coalition of the willing" to pursue sanctions and other measures against Iran if the U.N. effort falters. But that coalition must be forged through diplomatic leadership and the sharing of the negotiating burden.

Such sharing can be reinforced in a third layer of contacts in this policy of engaging Iran, with intense skepticism. The United States should support efforts by the U.N. special representative to Iraq, Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, to establish a contact group of regional states that would meet regularly -- in Baghdad.

Regional "meetings outside Baghdad don't work at this stage," Qazi told U.S. officials he visited this week in Washington in a refreshing burst of candor. Having senior diplomats from Egypt, Syria, Jordan and other Persian Gulf countries -- including Iran -- wrestle concretely with Iraq's daily problems could usefully supplement the U.S.-Iranian talks.

The experts say that Iran is six to nine months away from mastering the centrifuge process of enrichment, the key step in a 5- to 10-year process of building a nuclear bomb. Talking to the Iranians at three interlocking levels is the best way to determine whether there is any realistic hope of deflecting them from enrichment or deterring them if they get the bomb -- and what happens if the answer to both is no.

Bush must reshape Ronald Reagan's attitude toward Mikhail Gorbachev: Don't trust, do verify at every step of the way. First, there must be something to verify.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company