Israel has 'no problem' with US policy shift

Washington sends envoy to talks with Iran in Switzerland in break with past administration policy.

william burns 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
william burns 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Israel reacted cautiously to America's shift in Iran policy Wednesday, saying it had "no problem" with the Bush administration's decision to send a high-level envoy to talks with the Islamic Republic so long as the US demand that Iran suspend uranium enrichment before negotiations begin remained in place. But despite US insistence that demand hasn't been dropped, many interpreted the move as a major change in US policy and tantamount to dropping the suspension requirement in a new effort at dialogue with Teheran. This Saturday, the third-ranking US State Department official, Under Secretary for Political Affairs William Burns, will join previously scheduled talks between Iran and a delegation lead by EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana on a proposal of sweeteners the international community is offering in return for a halt in certain Iranian nuclear activities. The State Department, for its part, stressed that the demand for enrichment activities to stop before negotiations was still in place and that this "one-time deal" hadn't changed that. "Is this a new tactic, if you will? Yes. Does it send a signal? Yes. Is the substance any different? No," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Wednesday. "There is a condition for realizing negotiations with the Iranians, and that condition is that the Iranians take the step of suspending their uranium enrichment program," he elaborated. "It's a signal for certain, but it's not a change in substance, and the fact that Undersecretary Burns will be attending the meeting really serves to clarify the choices that the Iranian regime faces." He indicated that US allies such as Israel had been "informed," but not "consulted," ahead of the announcement. While the development was a "substantial" one - in the words of one Israeli government official - he said that Israel had "no problem" with the dialogue so long as the demand on halting enrichment remained. It is clear, he said, that there will be a need for the US and Iran "to talk at some stage." McCormack described Burns's role on Saturday as "to listen" and reiterate the American perspective at the gathering aimed at getting a more definitive Iranian response to the most recent incentive plan presented last month by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany. Under that plan, Iran would agree not to increase its current enrichment activities from its current level while getting a reprieve from further sanctions. The hope is that this intermediary period would lead to a formal opening of negotiations, which the United States would join only after Iran freezes its uranium enrichment in exchange for a freeze on the sanctions against it. McCormack acknowledged that sending Burns wouldn't necessarily change Iran's calculations. "I'm not laying any bets; I'm not making any predictions. I don't know how that will turn out," he said, but he also argued that "the fact that Ambassador Burns will attend the meeting underscores a commitment to diplomacy, the fact that, if the Iranians take the step of suspending their enrichment-related activity, they will see an American at the table, they'll see the secretary of state for negotiations." Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert with the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy, said that Burns's presence could be seen as "a show of good faith" that could help bring Iran around. But she said the move also exposes "the myth that we're still adhering to the long-standing pre-condition of suspension of uranium enrichment activities." Michael Rubin, an Iran expert with the American Enterprise Institute, agreed that by sending Burns, "[US President George W.] Bush has removed the red line which [US Secretary of State Condoleezza] Rice laid out in May 2006 with reference to not talking directly on the nuclear issue until Iran suspended enrichment." But the two disagreed about the shift's likely outcomes. Rubin assessed that, "Paradoxically, this decision makes the situation far more dangerous, since by abandoning red lines we have undercut our own credibility and signaled to Teheran that we cave to defiance." Maloney, however, argued that "it was certainly the right decision," given the fact that the Bush administration has supported European diplomatic involvement with Iran behind the scenes. "It's a bit like doing diplomacy with our hands tied behind our back to not have a seat in the table," said Maloney, a former State Department adviser. She attributed some of the reason for the change in strategy to the Bush administration's desire to secure a legacy in its final months in office that is more than Iran "running out the clock." The recalculation also comes against the backdrop of a presidential campaign in which engagement with Iran has been a major issue. While Republican Senator John McCain has indicated he would continue with the current approach of isolation, Democratic Senator Barack Obama has pilloried the administration for not using more strenuous diplomacy. Herb Keinon contributed to this report.