U.S. Under Pressure To Talk to Tehran

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 11, 2006

The Bush administration is facing pressure both in the United States and overseas to drop its long-standing refusal to talk directly with Iran about its nuclear program, particularly in the wake of the unusual 18-page letter sent this week to President Bush by Iran's president.

Foreign policy moderates from both parties have spoken out in recent days, including Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), a potential GOP presidential candidate; former secretary of state Madeleine K. Albright; former national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger; and former Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross. All have published sharply worded opinion articles questioning the administration's stance, and Albright was joined in her commentary by five former European foreign ministers who said they were told by Iranian officials in recent months that there is "widespread interest" in holding a dialogue with Washington.

Germany is one of the three European Union countries that have jointly held inconclusive talks with Tehran. German officials have made little secret of their belief that diplomacy will not succeed without direct U.S. intervention. Ruprecht Polenz, the influential chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the German parliament and an ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel, lashed out last Friday against the administration's policy after returning from a two-day visit to Iran. "Washington's refusal to join direct talks with Iran won't make it any easier to achieve a diplomatic solution to the current nuclear dispute," he said.

The administration has dismissed the letter from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- the first such communication since U.S.-Iranian relations were broken more than a quarter of a century ago -- as not a serious diplomatic overture.

"It really was a kind of philosophical and indeed religious attack on U.S. policies," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said yesterday on NBC's "Today" show. "There was nothing in it that suggested a way out of the nuclear stalemate."

But Albright said yesterday that the letter, despite its invective and religious musings, should be viewed as an opportunity both for a dialogue with Iran and to influence world opinion. She likened it to President John F. Kennedy's choosing to selectively respond to -- and ignore -- conflicting messages from his Soviet counterpart during the Cuban missile crisis.

"In diplomacy, you make your opportunities," Albright said. "Acting in a dismissive way doesn't get you anywhere."

The administration's stance on Iran echoes its refusal to hold one-on-one talks with North Korea on its nuclear program and to meet with Syrian officials over Lebanon since the assassination of a prominent Lebanese politician. Administration officials contend that such governments must earn such meetings by demonstrating that they are serious about addressing U.S. concerns. They add that bilateral contacts make little sense if they occur merely for the sake of holding them.

Officials note that Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill, the chief U.S. negotiator in the six-nation talks on North Korea's nuclear program, was given wide latitude to meet bilaterally with North Korean officials last year when it appeared that they were ready to negotiate -- and he might have even traveled to Pyongyang, North Korea's capital, if the government there had shut down its nuclear facility as a demonstration of good faith. But North Korea has refused to return to the talks for months. So Hill decided not to meet with a North Korean counterpart during a recent informal gathering in Tokyo unless Pyongyang signaled that it would rejoin the talks.

Rice asserted yesterday that "the absence of communication is not a problem with the Iranians" because there have been plenty of proposals advanced through the Europeans and the Russians. But, alluding to Iran's alleged failure to respond constructively to those proposals, she asked: "What is to be gained if Iran is not prepared to show that it is ready to accede to the demands of the international community?"

Critics of the administration's approach assert that diplomacy has failed thus far because Iran has little incentive to deal as long as its main antagonist, the United States, is not at the table. They also note that the failure of the United State to negotiate with Iran is only hardening suspicions that Bush secretly intends a military strike, making it increasingly difficult to isolate Tehran.

"Allies of the U.S. will support tough action against Iran only if they are confident America is serious about achieving a negotiated, diplomatic solution," Hagel, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote this week in the Financial Times. "The continued unwillingness of the U.S. to engage Iran will make other states hesitate to support, and possibly oppose, these tougher measures."

Iran holds the key to so many issues, Hagel said, that the nuclear issue cannot be addressed in isolation. "Iraq, nuclear capabilities, terrorism, Israel and oil are all part of an Iranian puzzle game that cannot be played one piece at a time," Hagel wrote. "There will be no lasting solution to the Iranian nuclear threat until the broader interests of Iran, the U.S., the region and the world are addressed."

Berger, writing in the Wall Street Journal, said the prospect of U.S. involvement in the talks should be used to secure a commitment from Russia, China and the European Union to impose tough sanctions if Iran rejects a reasonable offer. He said that diplomacy may have a chance of success if it is backed by a credible threat and if the United States takes an active role -- and that coercive measures might enjoy more international support if such an approach fails.

"There are important assets that Tehran wants, of an economic, security and political nature, and the U.S. holds the keys to most of them," wrote Berger, who was a Clinton national security adviser.

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