Analyze This: Why Washington's new playbook on Iran is no laughing matter

There's been significant change in US approach to Teheran.

geneva nuclear talks 224 (photo credit: AP)
geneva nuclear talks 224
(photo credit: AP)
US television satirist Jon Stewart had a merry old time on his Daily Show this weekend mocking the Bush administration's apparent change in strategy toward Iran. After showing a clip taken from President Bush's speech in the Knesset just two months ago in which he declared: "Some seem to believe we should negotiate with the terrorists and the radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along" - Stewart noted that the administration had just authorized the highest-level diplomatic contact with Iran in three decades, sending US Undersecretary of State William Burns to sit with Iranian negotiators at the seven-nation nuclear talks in Geneva on Saturday. The fact that Burns "observed" rather than taking an active part in the discussions seemed to be the fig-leaf used by White House spokeswoman Dana Perino to justify this unprecedented direct contact with Teheran. "There is no negotiation," she asserted; "he [Burns] is going as part of the international community, showing their unity when it comes to the underlying fundamental principle, which is that there will not be any negotiations [until Iran halts its uranium enrichment process]. Our strategy and our goal remain the same." As Stewart gleefully noted, sitting and talking (or staring) face-to-face with someone, even when maintaining your position, is what most people would call negotiation. But, he added with sarcasm-drenched irony, "if [the White House] would rather think of it as, uhhh, bombing the Iranians with conversation, in order to feel good about it, then feel good." While the goal may be the same, there is no longer any denying there has been a significant change in the US approach toward containing Teheran's nuclear ambitions. Its participation in the Geneva meeting was not an isolated incident, but part of an overall shift to what Burns, in testimony to Congress two weeks ago, called "tough-minded diplomacy... that helped produce significant breakthroughs with Libya several years ago, including its abandonment of terrorism and the pursuit of nuclear weapons. It is the kind of approach that is beginning to produce results in our multilateral diplomacy with North Korea." The Korean example is not likely to placate critics of that deal, who point to Pyongyang's apparent violation of agreements not to export its nuclear know-how - as it allegedly did with Damascus last year just prior to the Israeli air strike on a Syrian nuclear facility - and the legitimate fears here that this is exactly the kind of duplicity the Iranians are likely to manifest in any similar arrangement. However, Teheran itself seemed to throw cold water on the idea that the talks would ever reach that point, with Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili bluntly rejecting suggestions that his country would halt its uranium-enrichment process, even temporarily as part of a six-week "freeze-for-freeze" period in which diplomatic and economic sanctions against it would also be suspended. Israel, of course, will have to live with the Bush administration's new approach, while viewing its potential for success with justifiable skepticism. One government official responded by saying that Jerusalem "understands the need for both carrots and sticks, and if this change in tactics creates a chance for diplomacy to succeed, then some good can come of it." If not, there will likely be greater international understanding and acceptance if and when non-diplomatic alternatives have to be pursued. The danger, though, he added, was that Iran would simply exploit this new diplomatic window as yet another delaying tactic, stalling for more time while proceeding with the enrichment process. As it already is. The European and US response at Geneva to the Iranian refusal to directly address its proposal was to give Teheran another two weeks to think about it. No wonder Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had uncharacteristically kind words on Sunday to say about the meeting, calling it "a step forward" - since it was only Washington that took the extra step, while Teheran conceded nothing. Still, any softening by Ahmadinejad of his usual belligerent rhetoric, or by other Iranian officials, is now going to be charitably explained by those who oppose any US or Israeli military action toward the country as a hopeful sign of this new environment. This perhaps helps to account for the outright bizarre comment this weekend by Ahmadinejad's aide, Iranian vice president for tourism Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie, that "today, Iran is friends with the American and Israeli people. No nation in the world is our enemy, this is an honor." This sounds like an awkward attempt to echo back a policy statement that Burns put forth to Congress on July 9: "We are also trying to find creative ways to deepen our own engagement with Iran and its people, who remain among the most pro-American populations in the region." Those creative ways have included arranging a joint practice tournament between the US and Iranian table-tennis teams headed to the Olympics (a tactic similar to the famed US-China "Ping-pong diplomacy" of the 1970s), and inviting the Iranian national basketball team to play a round of games in the NBA summer league. The latter just kicked off this weekend, with the Iranian squad losing badly to the Dallas Mavericks, 79-62. But at least Teheran can take consolation from the fact that, at the same time, it walked away from the Geneva meeting with, at the very least, a tie, if not an outright win. That's because even Ahmadinejad can grasp the concept that projecting a kinder, gentler Iran in response to the new American initiative, while in substance actually conceding little or nothing, is the most viable strategy for a regime determined to press ahead with its nuclear dreams. And if that is indeed the case, the big question for Jerusalem is whether this US administration - or the next - is going to end up content simply bombing Iran with more talk, and confining its victories over it to the basketball court.