Analysis

U.S. Policy on Iran Evolves Toward Diplomacy

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 20, 2006

UNITED NATIONS, Sept. 19 -- Before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, U.S. officials confidently predicted that the toppling of Saddam Hussein would lead to renewed momentum on the Israeli-Palestinian peace track. "The road to Jerusalem leads through Baghdad" was a common refrain.

President Bush's speech Tuesday to the U.N. General Assembly showed how much that diplomatic calculation has changed in Bush's second term. With the United States ensnarled in an increasingly difficult campaign in Iraq, war is no longer a viable option. Instead, the administration is struggling with the difficult and messy business of diplomacy. That often means accommodating the interests and demands of other countries, even backtracking on what had been firm positions.

Slowly but surely, the White House has muddied what were once clear lines in pursuit of diplomacy. As recently as a month ago, the administration firmly demanded that Iran must first suspend its nuclear activities before the United States would join negotiations on the nuclear programs, but now U.S. officials have quietly acquiesced in a European-led effort to find a face-saving way for the talks to begin.

U.S. officials are still pursuing the possibility of sanctions, and in fact they have drafted a sanctions resolution to be offered at the U.N. Security Council. But with allies balking, negotiations appear more likely than punishment. Bush, in his speech, used notably mild language when he discussed Iran, suggesting that the two countries one day will "be good friends and close partners in the cause of peace."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hosted a dinner Tuesday night at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel with her counterparts from Russia, China, France, Britain, Germany and Italy. Under the original schedule, the session was supposed to reach decisions on a sanctions resolution. Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns, briefing reporters Tuesday night, said the foreign ministers expressed "very strong support" for the European Union negotiations with Iran. "We are seeking a diplomatic solution," he said, saying the diplomacy is "in extra innings."

Bush, in his speech, also emphasized that U.S. officials "have no objection to Iran's pursuit of a truly peaceful nuclear power program." This is a reversal from the policy in the first term, when U.S. officials loudly proclaimed that a country with such vast oil and gas reserves had no need for a nuclear program. Under pressure from Europeans, the administration dropped that argument late last year.

On the Middle East, Bush pushed his notion that greater democracy will bring stability to the region. But many foreign officials instead argue that stability can be achieved only if there is peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

To that end, Bush appeared to announce a new initiative, saying he had "directed Secretary of State Rice to lead a diplomatic effort to engage moderate leaders across the region, to help the Palestinians reform their security services and support Israeli and Palestinian leaders in their efforts" to resolve differences.

But U.S. officials said Bush was not announcing something new, but rather highlighting an evolving effort to take advantage of the growing anger among Palestinians at the Hamas-led government. The militant group won legislative elections earlier this year, leading to a broad cutoff of international aid because Hamas refuses to renounce its stated goal of destroying Israel.

Rice might travel to the Middle East after the U.N. General Assembly meeting ends, though plans are not firm, officials said. To a large extent, the administration is reacting to pressure from Europeans and Arabs to do more on the Palestinian issue. British Prime Minister Tony Blair recently visited the Middle East and is trying to foster political reconciliation among various Palestinian factions, while French President Jacques Chirac on Tuesday called here for an international peace conference to "define in advance the guarantees we are prepared to provide to the parties as soon as they reach an agreement." Both Israeli and U.S. officials regard Chirac's idea as a nonstarter.

One of Rice's most senior aides, counselor Philip D. Zelikow, last Friday made a speech to a Washington think tank in which he appeared to link progress on Middle East peace to securing greater diplomatic cooperation in the struggle against Iran.

"For the Arab moderates and for the Europeans, some sense of progress and momentum on the Arab-Israeli dispute is just a sine qua non for their ability to cooperate actively with the United States on a lot of other things that we care about," Zelikow said. "We can rail against that belief; we can find it completely justifiable, but it's fact. That means an active policy on the Arab-Israeli dispute is an essential ingredient to forging a coalition that deals with the most dangerous problems."

Zelikow's comments alarmed Israelis, who fear becoming a pawn in American diplomatic calculations, and U.S. officials said they were misinterpreted. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack even posted a statement on Power Line, a right-wing blog, saying there is no change in policy.

But Zelikow may have been stating the obvious: The administration has learned that building coalitions for peace, not war, is hard work.


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