A Diplomatic Avenue

Thursday, March 1, 2007

THE BUSH administration's decision to participate in a regional conference on Iraq that could include Iran and Syria is a welcome way to strengthen U.S. diplomacy at a crucial moment in the Middle East. Iraq teeters between civil war and steps toward a political settlement; so do Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority. Regional talks aren't likely to settle any of these crises, but they are a necessary part of any solutions. By participating and opening the way for conversations with the Syrian and Iranian governments, the administration will extract itself from a diplomatic corner and gain some fresh opportunities.

It's quite possible that neither Syria nor Iran will prove cooperative on Iraq -- Tehran has yet to say whether it will attend the conference -- but there are some positive signs. Iran's hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has come under attack at home for his confrontational style. In recent weeks, Ali Larijani, Iran's national security adviser, who reports to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has been quietly negotiating with senior Saudi officials on Lebanon and Iraq. Though there have been no breakthroughs, the talks helped to stop street fighting in Lebanon; Iran seems to be interested in heading off a regional conflict between Sunni and Shiite movements. Syria, desperate to end its own isolation, has been advertising its willingness to help calm Iraq and to open peace talks with Israel.

Mr. Larijani and other Iranian officials have also been hinting that Iran is interested in striking a deal to end its confrontation with the U.N. Security Council over its nuclear program. It's at least possible that Tehran is looking for a way, without appearing to be capitulating, to accept the U.N. demand that it end uranium enrichment. That's why administration officials were wise not to rule out side talks between U.S. and Iranian officials at the upcoming Baghdad meetings, while sticking to the administration's position that formal negotiations with Iran will depend on an enrichment suspension.

Success with Iran will require a careful mix of diplomacy, economic sanctions and the threat of force. Since the beginning of the year the United States has strengthened its military position in the Persian Gulf and arrested Iranian agents in Iraq. Now it has matched those necessary measures with a new diplomatic avenue. What's needed next is a continued show of determination by the U.N. Security Council, whose latest deadline for an Iranian freeze on enrichment expired last week. Britain and the United States have begun seeking a new resolution strengthening the mostly symbolic sanctions that the Security Council approved in December. Russia and European governments that have been urging more dialogue with Iran have just witnessed a rare show of flexibility by the Bush administration, but the dialogue will lead nowhere unless it is accompanied by continued and escalating pressure from a united Security Council.

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