The U.S. Can Find Small Gains Regarding Iran

Friday, October 2, 2009

THE OBAMA administration's first formal diplomatic encounter with Iran had much in common with the Bush administration's last one. On July 19, 2008, Undersecretary of State William J. Burns joined officials from five other nations in Geneva as they presented Iranian representative Saeed Jalili with a proposal they called "freeze for freeze." On Thursday Mr. Burns, now representing the Obama administration, joined the same five governments in the same city with the same Iranian official -- and once again "freeze for freeze" was on the table.

The proposal calls for Iran to stop expanding its uranium enrichment operations for six weeks in exchange for a halt in sanctions action by the U.N. Security Council; during that time the two sides would discuss a full suspension of Iranian enrichment in exchange for the negotiation of a package of economic benefits and security guarantees.

In July of last year, Iran refused to respond to the offer, instead proposing extensive talks on a wide range of issues. Two weeks later, facing a deadline, Tehran turned down the freeze plan. At Thursday's meeting Mr. Jalili once again proposed talks on a menu of issues and offered no response to the freeze idea. Another meeting was scheduled for later this month. But there's no reason to believe that Iran's response to the international offer -- then as now, accompanied by the threat of new sanctions -- will be any different.

The Obama administration did alter the Bush administration's approach somewhat, by initiating a half-hour bilateral meeting between Mr. Burns and Mr. Jalili that covered the nuclear proposal as well as other issues, including human rights. And officials pointed to a couple of developments that could lower tensions over Iran's program in the short term. One was the regime's agreement to admit international inspectors into the uranium enrichment plant, its second, that it disclosed last week, after its discovery by Western intelligence agencies. Tehran had to make that concession to avoid a complete rupture with International Atomic Energy Agency and the Security Council's permanent members.

More intriguing was Iran's reported acceptance, in principle, of a proposal under which most of the uranium that Iran has already enriched would be processed by Russia and France for use in a nuclear medical research reactor that Iran has possessed for decades. Considering that the Iranian stockpile had grown large enough to supply the core of a nuclear bomb if it were further enriched, that diversion could lower, for a while, the level of international alarm about how close Iran may be to producing a weapon.

Administration officials say such practical confidence-building measures are an improvement over the standoff between Iran and the West during the last year. In that they are right. But it remains the case that the international coalition is in the position of offering proposals that have been previously rejected and hoping for a different answer. Last year the Bush administration threatened new sanctions if Iran rejected the freeze proposal, but then was unable to deliver. The Obama administration now suggests the same consequences if the new talks fail. We can all hope it will be more successful if its bluff is called.

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