Correction to This Article
The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, hasn't held any secret meetings with Iranian officials in Baghdad to discuss Iraq. David Ignatius's May 19 op-ed column erred in reporting that several such meetings between Khalilzad and an Iranian representative took place earlier this year.

What We Need to Tell Iran

By David Ignatius
Friday, May 19, 2006

How do you answer a letter from an Iranian president that catalogues the perfidies of U.S. policy and then sweetly asks America to "return to the teachings of the prophets"? So far President Bush's answer has been silence. He has let Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's letter sit in the in-box while his administration concentrates on its cautious diplomatic campaign against Tehran.

I think American silence is a mistake. One rule of modern media politics is that you never let the other guy's statement go unanswered. The Iranian president's May 8 letter wasn't an attempt to open a private channel but a public gesture to show the world that he's not afraid of contact. President Bush should respond in kind. The Iranian president has opened a canopy for a conversation between the Iranian and American people. Taking advantage of it seems like a no-brainer.

What Washington must communicate above all is the choice Iran faces as the crisis deepens over its nuclear program. The U.S. strategy is to warn the Iranians that they are approaching a fork in the road and to sketch what lies down each path. The administration needs to broadcast that message over every available channel -- including a return letter to the Iranian president.

Despite the rumors of war that periodically circulate in Washington, Iran policy for now is almost entirely a State Department project. The architects are Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her undersecretary for political affairs, Nicholas Burns. For an administration that is still regarded in much of the world as belligerent and unilateralist, the Iran strategy is almost painfully multilateral. It seeks to build as broad a coalition as possible to steer Iran away from acquiring nuclear weapons.

The administration has been so intent on building a firm coalition that it has closed off opportunities for bilateral contact. The U.S. ambassador to Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad, held several secret meetings with an Iranian representative around the turn of the year, I'm told, and public statements by both sides seemed to promise a formal U.S.-Iranian dialogue about Iraq. But Rice froze that channel in March and told Khalilzad it wasn't the right time to meet.

To understand Iran policy, it helps to go back to Rice's decision in March 2005 to support the European Union's negotiations with Iran. Until then the administration didn't have an Iran strategy so much as a jumble of conflicting ideas. Rice prevailed and began dispatching Burns on what have been monthly trips to Europe to coordinate strategy with the three E.U. countries conducting the negotiations: Britain, France and Germany.

Ahmadinejad's surprise election last summer clouded the diplomatic track. He instructed Iranian negotiators to break off talks in August, and they have never returned to serious bargaining. In February he defied the International Atomic Energy Agency, and Iran began enrichment of uranium. The administration hopes that Ahmadinejad's stridency will open splits in the Iranian elite, but so far it seems only to have made him stronger. The American response has been diplomacy and more diplomacy. Last September Rice and Burns wooed India into the contain-Iran coalition. By March they had expanded it to include such countries as Egypt, Brazil, Singapore and Ecuador.

At a meeting at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York on May 8, Rice won agreement from Russia, China and the three European countries on a strategy to show the Iranians the fork in the road. If Iran agrees to stop its enrichment effort and returns to negotiations, the coalition will support a light-water reactor, possible joint enrichment with Russia and other economic benefits that would bring Iran into the global economy. The goal is to craft a package of goodies that will be irresistible to the Iranian people. If Iran refuses, it will face a yet-to-be-specified set of "disincentives." The plan is for the Europeans to present the carrots and sticks while Russia and China join in a new Security Council resolution tamely urging Iranian cooperation -- without mentioning sanctions or the use of force.

And if this broad but shallow U.N. coalition fails to deter Iran? Rice and Burns are already planning a narrower "coalition of the willing" that would impose a tougher set of financial sanctions. They have discussed with European nations and Japan possible restrictions that would shut down international lending to Iran. France and Germany haven't yet agreed to these sanctions, but administration officials hope they will go along.

And then? What would happen if, at year-end, Iran is still steaming ahead with its nuclear program? That is a description of the moment when the administration's elaborate exercise in diplomacy has failed, and officials won't discuss what they might do next.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company