Fighting Iran -- With Patience

By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, February 25, 2007

Nuclear weapons have a way of forcing presidents to reverse policies thought to be carved in stone. So it was with Ronald Reagan and the Soviet Union, and so it may be now with George W. Bush and the two surviving members of the "axis of evil."

To the outrage of some supporters and the mockery of his critics, President Bush has blessed a tentative, quarter-loaf diplomatic deal aimed at curbing North Korea's nuclear arsenal. And he has a shot at reaching a modus vivendi with Iran on nuclear proliferation as well -- if he disregards both the outrage and the mockery, as he should.

"There is movement behind the scenes," a European diplomat who closely follows Iran told me last week. "The Iranians are nervous and want to get engaged." Details of a confidential Iranian proposal that has been circulating in Brussels and Tehran for four months support the view that there could be an opening on the Iranian front despite the angry rhetoric from Iran triggered by last week's new indictment of its nuclear ambitions by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Bush vigorously ruled out rewarding bad behavior by foreign adversaries in his first term. Saddam Hussein's manipulation of the international community was a driving force in Bush's labeling Iraq, along with North Korea and Iran, as irredeemably evil in 2002 and invading Iraq a year later.

But now Bush countenances providing economic and diplomatic rewards to North Korea, and ultimately to Iran, to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons in the hands of two regimes that behave as badly as anyone could want. The bravado of the first Bush term has been replaced by a sadder and quieter way of doing business abroad as Iraq has sapped U.S. capabilities and political cohesion.

The sense of a U-turn is reinforced by Bush's reliance this time on the negotiating skills of his diplomatic corps and on European and Asian partners to reach, enforce and pay for the projected deals, which would serve as twin tombstones for a brief era of U.S. unilateralism.

The change on North Korea is described by former administration officials as a strategic decision by the president to start "to pry the lid off" of that starving, tyrannized remnant of the Cold War by offering Pyongyang a path for peaceful change. Cooperation in the six-party negotiations would also help stabilize China's relations with Japan and the United States, in this view.

The president reportedly surprised Chinese President Hu Jintao during their lunch at the White House last April by suggesting that, if the nuclear impasse could be resolved, the time was right for a formal peace treaty to end the Korean conflict. And when North Korea defied Chinese "advice" by conducting a nuclear test in October, China became more engaged in pulling Pyongyang back to the negotiating table.

Unfortunately, Bush cannot rely on Russia to play a similarly helpful role with Iran. President Vladimir Putin seems willing to take enormous risks with global stability for short-term, largely commercial reasons. And divisions in Iran's leadership make the reaching of a "mutual suspension" accord -- under which Tehran will suspend enriching uranium in return for the suspension of U.N. sanctions -- more difficult.

But U.S. and European policy should play on those divisions, which have visibly surfaced as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad rants on in full-throated belligerence while officials closer to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, offer proposals that have the virtue at least of identifying the chief remaining obstacles to a deal.

Last autumn, Iran's Ali Larijani told European Union negotiator Javier Solana that Iran could accept the Russian-E.U. proposal for an international consortium to enrich and reprocess nuclear fuel for Iran -- if the enrichment and reprocessing were done on Iranian soil.

A diplomatic device known as a nonpaper (so its existence can be denied) and dated Oct. 1, 2006, describes a "gentlemen's agreement" by the two diplomats to use the proposal "to help open the way to negotiations." When I telephoned him in Berlin last week, Solana affably but deftly warded off questions about the nonpaper, then added: "Nothing has been agreed. Nothing has been put forward in formal terms."

Precisely. The Iranian condition is unacceptable to Washington. But the fact that it was put forward at all suggests that the pressures generated by the U.S. Treasury's campaign to limit finance and export credits to Iran and condemnation by the United Nations are taking a toll on the Iranians -- as these tools did on North Korea.

Bush seems to have decided to employ strategic patience in seeking a verifiable nuclear deal with North Korea and to have taken a long-range view of regional stability. He should do no less with Iran, however much manufactured outrage or contrived mockery it provokes, in Tehran or in Washington.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company