Diplomacy: Direct dialling?

The US may not be stepping up efforts to sit down with Iran, but it is gearing up for goodwill gestures.

ahmadinejad hands up 298 (photo credit: AP [file])
ahmadinejad hands up 298
(photo credit: AP [file])
Senator Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, surprised his listeners at a meeting of the Jewish Orthodox Union last month on Capitol Hill. "I'd like more attention paid to a dialogue with Iran," he said. "Talking with people is never harmful." Though Specter, who is neither known as a critic of the Bush administration nor seen as a dovish lawmaker, did not give any details on exactly how he wants the US to engage with Iran, members of the audience later said they never expected the senator to break ranks with the declared policy of the White House that clearly ruled out dialogue with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's regime. But Specter is not alone. In the past few weeks, the number of calls for talks with Iran has risen in Washington and elsewhere - from lawmakers, former administration officials, foreign leaders, experts and the media. Although most of those calling for a dialogue are skeptical about its potential outcome, they all agree that before walking down the road that leads to sanctions and maybe even to military action, it would be wise to take a detour and see what the dialogue avenue has to offer. After weeks of pressure, the administration finally conceded Wednesday and announced its conditioned willingness to join multilateral talks with Iran, together with European countries. "To underscore our commitment to a diplomatic solution and to enhance prospects for success, as soon as Iran fully and verifiably suspends its enrichment and reprocessing activities, the United States will come to the table," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said at a press conference Wednesday. Rice stressed that the condition for joining talks with Teheran would be an Iranian agreement to halt any disputed nuclear activity while the talks are going on. It is not yet clear if such a condition will be accepted by Iran, which has declared in the past that nuclear enrichment is its right as a sovereign nation. A New York Times report this week raised this debate to the headlines. The report spoke of deliberations in the administration - for the first time since the Iranian nuclear crisis broke out - over whether to join the EU-3 countries (Britain, France and Germany) in their talks with Iran. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, according to the report, seems to be willing to discuss the issue, while President George Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld reject the idea. The main force behind the calls for entering into a dialogue with Teheran are the Europeans, who believe that if the US joins the discussions with Iran, these talks will be seen as more sincere and may actually result in some kind of a positive response from the Iranian side. The Europeans are joined by leading Democrats and also by former administration officials who are still seen as part of the foreign policy community in Washington. Henry Kissinger was the first with a Washington Post op-ed in which he suggested that the letter Ahmadinejad sent to Bush last month should be seen as an opportunity to open a dialogue, instead of being disregarded as no more than a lengthy piece of anti-American propaganda. Other officials who worked for Republican administrations voiced similar opinions, among them Richard Armitage, the former deputy secretary of state and Richard Haas, who now heads the Council on Foreign Relations. Former secretary of state in the Clinton administration Madeleine Albright said this week that little could be achieved without face-to-face negotiations with Iran and that ultimately the administration will reach this conclusion as well. THE ADMINISTRATION did its best to put off these calls, declaring that there is no practical sense in sitting down with Ahmadinejad's representatives. Under Secretary of State for political affairs Nicholas Burns is the administration's front man for dealing with Iran. In a recent speech at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Burns took on the politicians and experts demanding direct talks with Iran. "There are a lot of people saying the real problem is that the United States won't sit down and talk to Iran directly," Burns told the crowd of Middle East experts. "We say to that, 'We didn't create this nuclear problem and crisis with Iran. We weren't the country that chose to override the combined will of the international community. And the problem is not the absence of regular diplomatic contact between the United States and Iran. The problem is, directly, the behavior of the government of Iran.'" But now the winds have changed and Burns himself will be the person dispatched by the US to sit and negotiate with those who created the nuclear crisis. The State Department led the approach favoring openness to the idea of direct negotiation mainly as an attempt to show the European partners and the critics at home that the US is willing to provide all the good will and make every effort to avoid a confrontation - diplomatic or military - with Iran. The idea behind being forthcoming to the negotiation concept is to learn from the mistakes that were made before invading Iraq, and to walk hand in hand with the international community all along the road. Meanwhile, the US has put on hold its intention to have limited discussions with Iranian representatives on the situation in Iraq. These talks, which were to be similar to discussions the US had with Iran prior to the invasion of Afghanistan and of Iraq, were supposed to deal solely with bilateral issues affecting the internal situation in Iraq. Yet the administration has decided to put off even these limited direct ties in order to avoid any action that could be interpreted as engaging with the Ahmadinejad regime. Israel, which is seen as the country that has the most to lose from an Iranian nuclear bomb, is staying out of the debate going on in Washington. For Israel, what is important is the final result. If direct talks were to stop the Iranian nuclear project, Israel would welcome them. But if direct negotiations only help Teheran gain more time to achieve its nuclear aspirations, Israel will be there to remind the US that the clock is ticking. WHAT CAN the US and Iran discuss when they enter into negotiations? Experts agree that Ahmadinejad's letter does not provide much of a basis for negotiations, since it deals mainly with theology and history and not with practical actions. The only issue that seems to be relevant right now for discussions is the proposal for incentives that will convince Iran to abandon its nuclear program. Representatives of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and of Germany (which are referred to now as "P5 plus Germany") met in Vienna to discuss the incentives, and according to diplomats in Washington, will agree on a suggestion which will offer Iran a light water nuclear reactor and assurances for fuel supply for energy plants. These offers are meant mainly to refute Iranian claims that it needs the nuclear program for civilian energy supply. If this is really the case, the package offered by the P5+Germany group can satisfy these needs without Iran having to develop its own nuclear ability. Analysts in Washington do not pin much hope on the incentive proposal and agree that, based on his own rhetoric from the past months, Ahmadinejad won't go ahead with any proposal, no matter how generous it is. Yet the incentive plan, if seen as being carried out in good faith, can help the US with its diplomatic efforts to counter Iran. Once Iran rejects the proposals, it will be easier for Washington to tell the Russians and Chinese, who still oppose applying pressure on Iran, that all avenues were exhausted and that the Iranian regime turned down a reasonable Euro-American proposal. China and Russia now seem to hold the key to any US involvement in direct negotiations with Iran. In the talks in Vienna, US representatives said that they would be willing to join the EU talks with Iran, in exchange for a Russian-Chinese commitment to go ahead with sanctions in the event the talks fail. This position, set forth by American diplomats, links the direct negotiations track to the UN Security Council sanction track, and enables Washington to use direct talks as a means of getting China and Russia on board. Direct multilateral negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program would be a new phase in the standoff between Washington and Teheran, but would not consist of a dramatic change in US policy, since such talks are already in place with the other nuclear hotspot - North Korea. While the US already imposed its own sanctions on Iran years ago - and is accustomed to living without Iranian oil - the other potential partners for sanctions still rely on Iran for a great part of their oil consumption. The meaning of sanctions is an immediate hike in oil prices, a step that politicians are rarely willing to take. These politicians, too, would prefer direct negotiations with Iran before moving on to sanctions, which might cost them popular support at home.