A Smart Approach to Iran

Thursday, June 1, 2006

THE BUSH administration's offer yesterday to join negotiations with Iran was well tailored. By stating its readiness to join the European governments that have been negotiating with Tehran for several years, the administration may have defused an issue that was impeding its effort to win support for U.N. sanctions against Iran. Its concession was merely to acknowledge the reality that any enduring settlement of the Iranian nuclear threat will require direct U.S. participation. Yet the administration rightly insisted that Iran first suspend its uranium enrichment and reprocessing before any talks including the United States begin, and it linked its offer to a carrot-and-stick package of incentives and sanctions that would be presented to Iran in the coming days with the support of the Europeans and, possibly, China and Russia.

The packaging means that Iran won't achieve the symbolic breakthrough of talks with the United States -- something its regime and public deeply desire -- unless it suspends its nuclear work. If Iran rejects the offer, which will also include economic incentives, the result should be the passage of a Security Council resolution opening the way to sanctions. Crucially, European governments, and possibly Russia and China, will agree on the sanctions to be imposed even before the offer is made.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice still needs to firm up this elaborate piece of multilateral diplomacy in a meeting with the permanent Security Council members and Germany in Vienna today. There are some weak points: The Security Council resolution won't be voted on unless Iran rejects the offer, and there is no deadline for Tehran's response. Yet if Ms. Rice succeeds, Iran may well be presented with the "clear choice" she described yesterday between improved international relations and a relatively painful isolation.

That doesn't mean the Bush administration is anywhere near ending the threat from Iran. Most likely, the regime will try to dodge the choice it will be presented or reject it altogether. It will look for support to actors such as Mohamed ElBaradei, the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who has publicly undercut the decisions of his own board and the Security Council by proposing that Iran be allowed to continue uranium reprocessing. Tehran also will count on the Bush administration's critics in Europe and Washington to decry the offer to negotiate as unworthy and to insist that the United States offer Iran unconditional bilateral negotiations on all issues.

Ms. Rice made it clear yesterday that no such "grand bargain" is on the table. Were the Bush administration to propose such a scheme, Iran would surely pocket the concession of de facto U.S. recognition while continuing to pursue its nuclear program. Fragile European support for sanctions would quickly give way to pressure on Washington to offer Tehran greater and greater concessions. If, on the other hand, Iran accepts the coming offer, it's possible that Iranian-U.S. talks could evolve into a larger discussion of security issues -- Iraq, Lebanon, global terrorism -- that would benefit both countries, though it's hard to imagine that happening under Iran's current government. For now, the administration has rightly put the focus on forcing Tehran -- not Washington -- to make a choice.


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