Wednesday’s unprecedented offer by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to join multilateral negotiations over its nuclear program was hailed as a positive step by Iran specialists who warned, however, that its conditional nature could prove problematic.
Bowing to weeks of growing pressure from European allies, Rice announced that Washington was willing to join ongoing talks between the EU-3 Britain, France, and Germany and Tehran provided, however, that the Islamic Republic first "verifiably" freeze its uranium-enrichment efforts.
"This is a positive step, but it’s fraught with some danger in the sense that imposing preconditions, as reasonable as they may be, may invite the Iranians to put forward their own preconditions," said Trita Parsi, an Iran scholar at Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
"And then suddenly we’re back to Square One in which we have no talks, no progress, and no diplomacy, while the Iranians go ahead with their program," he told IPS.
"I suspect that the Iranians won’t absolutely dismiss the offer and walk away," noted Gary Sick, director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University, who served as the chief Iran expert on the National Security Council under former President Jimmy Carter.
"But by putting it in the form of a contingency where Iran first has to bow to our wishes, Iran will be very reluctant to go along," he predicted.
Rice’s announcement came on the eve of the latest rounds of talks between the U.S., the EU-3, Russia, and China in Vienna on a package of carrots and sticks that they hope will persuade Iran to halt its enrichment activities as a first step toward an agreement that would ensure that Tehran could not build nuclear weapons.
With support from the EU-3, the administration of President George W. Bush has been pushing hard in the UN Security Council for a resolution that would impose sanctions against Iran if it did not freeze its enrichment program. China and Russia, however, have opposed such a resolution in the absence of greater flexibility on Washington’s part.
The Europeans, who, for the last three years, have acted as Washington’s surrogates in talks with Iran, have also appealed with growing urgency most recently via last week’s visit to Washington by British Prime Minister Tony Blair for the U.S. to join them at the table.
Their position has strengthened in recent weeks amid signals by Tehran, including an unprecedented 18-page letter from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Bush himself, that it was ready to engage in direct talks with Washington on a range of issues, including its nuclear program.
"Some kind of positive response became almost obligatory, especially in the context of Ahmadinejad’s letter and other reported feelers that Tehran has put out," noted Charles Kupchan, director of European Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).
In addition to persuading Washington to join the talks, the EU-3 have also promoted a package that includes providing Iran with light-water nuclear reactors, trade benefits and other economic incentives, and discussion of a "framework" to address Iran’s security concerns.
The last component, however, is strongly opposed by administration hardliners, who are led by Vice President Dick Cheney and favor a policy of "regime change" in Iran.
One source Wednesday suggested that administration hawks may have gone along with Rice’s negotiations offer in exchange for European promises that Washington will not be asked to provide security assurances as part of any eventual negotiation.
Indeed, in answer to one reporter’s question Wednesday, Rice stressed that "we have not been asked about security assurances, and I don’t expect that we will be."
She also stated that the administration was not taking its military options off the table and stressed that Washington was not interested, at least for now, either in bilateral talks or in negotiations for a "grand bargain" with Tehran that would address all of the key issues which have divided the two countries, as recently advocated by a number of prominent Republicans, including the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Richard Lugar, and Richard Armitage, who served as deputy secretary of state during Bush’s first term.
"We are not in a position to talk about full diplomatic relations with a state with which we have so many fundamental differences," said Rice, who added, however, that a successful resolution of the nuclear question could "change the relationship that it has with the United States [and] begin to open the possibilities for cooperation."
The careful terms in which she couched the new offer, as well as the precondition that she imposed on it, made clear to observers here that the internal battle over Iran policy between administration hardliners and the "realists" centered at the State Department remains unresolved, even if the latter appear to have scored an important victory.
"We know that this is an issue over which a lot of blood has been spilled in the corridors of power," Kupchan told IPS. "I would assume that what one could call the State Department gang is prevailing in this round of the fight, although it’s not over."
"For the purists, even a stated willingness to talk with the Tehran regime is hard to swallow, whether conditional or not," he said.
Indeed, as European pressure on the administration to compromise increased over the past weeks, hard-line neoconservatives, whose influence in the administration runs chiefly through Cheney’s office, have been arguing that, by talking directly with Tehran, Washington would not only fall into a "trap" designed to extract more U.S. concessions, but also would demoralize the "opposition" in Iran by implicitly according unprecedented recognition to the regime.
Sick and Parsi also see Rice’s offer as a victory for the "realists" and an important policy change but, given the precondition of an enrichment freeze that comes with it, remain skeptical that it will yield diplomatic fruit.
"It’s an open question," according to Sick, who noted that, after offering to meet with Iranians about Iraq earlier this year, Washington got "cold feet" once Tehran showed interest in convening talks.
Moreover, he suggested, if Tehran agrees to an indefinite and verifiable freeze in its nuclear program to fulfill the precondition, it is unclear what the purpose of the negotiations will be. "I disagree with the idea that we can only talk with Iran after our major problems [with it] are taken care of. We should be talking to get problems solved."
Parsi also worried that the precondition to suspend enrichment indefinitely could be a "deal-breaker."
"The Iranian fear is that, if they agree to suspend enrichment, and there’s no progress in the talks, then two or three or four years from now, they could find themselves in a much weaker position," he said. "This is what happened with the EU-3; the Iranians agreed to suspend so long as talks were taking place, but then the Europeans just stalled."
As a result, Parsi said Tehran may seek to set its own preconditions for talks, possibly including a limited time horizon in which enrichment will be suspended a suggestion, he said, it has proposed before or even a demand that Washington formally recognize it before negotiations take place.
"For a week or two, there will be some haggling, and then the question will be, to a large extent, how the other powers will react," he said, adding, however, that Rice’s announcement should not be taken lightly. "Privately," he said, "administration officials now clearly recognize that it’s the U.S. that has the weight to make diplomacy work, and that is very positive."
(Inter Press Service)