The Black Box of Tehran
Here's a real-life international mystery: What happened in Tehran in September that torpedoed the prospect of negotiations with the United States over Iran's nuclear program? Were Western hopes of Iranian pragmatism simply an illusion? Are there other channels open for discussion with Tehran if the nuclear route is blocked?
U.S. and European intelligence analysts are debating these questions, and for now they don't seem to have good answers. The process of decision making in Tehran remains a "black box." Analysts can see the decisions that emerge from the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and they can hear the competing arguments of pragmatists and hard-liners. But how consensus is reached remains a puzzle. My fear is that at its core, the Islamic republic disdains compromise as a sign of weakness.
Hopes for a breakthrough on the nuclear issue were raised last summer by discussions between Ali Larijani, Iran's national security adviser, and Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy chief. Both men are at the pragmatic, deal-making ends of their respective political spectrums, and that may have been part of the problem. But as the discussions continued, the Iranians appeared ready to offer a two-month suspension of uranium enrichment once talks with the Europeans resumed -- thereby meeting the U.S. precondition for joining the talks. It looked like a classic bit of face-saving bargaining.
The background music seemed right as well. President Bush told me in an interview on Sept. 13 that the United States respected Iran's legitimate interests, including its right to a civilian nuclear program. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, while taking a defiant line on many issues, told me and Lally Weymouth of Newsweek on Sept. 19 that Iran would be willing to resume diplomatic relations with the United States "under appropriate conditions." And he said in other meetings that Iran might accept suspension of enrichment as a byproduct of negotiations, although not as a precondition. The sense that a deal was possible was reinforced by a back-channel exchange in which a European intermediary and an Iranian former official prepared a joint paper outlining a compromise formula on the nuclear issue.
But by late September, State Department officials concluded that the Iranians were backing away. Pessimistic private signals were confirmed when Khamenei, the only Iranian who speaks authoritatively on foreign policy, explained last week that Iran had already tried suspension of enrichment, in its earlier negotiations with the Europeans, and wouldn't do so again. "If we had not experienced that path [a two-year suspension of uranium enrichment], perhaps we would have criticized ourselves today. But now we will pursue with a strong heart."
So what's next? Bush administration officials rightly argue that Iran must pay some price for continuing its nuclear program in defiance of warnings from the International Atomic Energy Agency. Russia and China have promised to support some penalties for Iran, and my sense is that maintaining their support -- and international solidarity on Iran -- matters more than the details of sanctions. Failure to penalize Tehran would, among other things, undermine the Iranian pragmatists who favored negotiations. It would show that Tehran can defy the West and get away with it, which has been one of Ahmadinejad's implicit themes.
While the Bush administration wants to draw a clear red line for Tehran, it also appears ready to keep the door open for dialogue. An important gesture was the announcement this month that the United States will lift sanctions to allow an American company to provide spare parts to repair Iranian civilian aircraft. Another signal came from Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, who said last week in an otherwise hard-line speech that the U.S.-European package of incentives for Iran to halt enrichment will remain on the table, despite Tehran's refusal to join negotiations.
Burns called for "a dramatic increase in our exchanges with Iran -- in business, in academia, in athletics, in the arts." That amplified a comment Bush had made to me in our interview. (If the administration is serious about exchanges, however, it ought to quash an absurd investigation by the Treasury Department into whether American basketball players playing for Iranian teams are violating U.S. sanctions. Good grief!)
America, meanwhile, has a foreign policy mystery of its own -- rivaling that black box of decision making in Tehran. Just what was former secretary of state James A. Baker III up to, in his contacts last month with Iranian and Syrian diplomats about how to stabilize Iraq? Is Baker opening a back channel for the Bush administration? Is America quietly seeking Iranian help as Iraq spins out of control? We'll leave that puzzle to pundits in Tehran.