Reversing Policy, U.S. ‘Froze’ Iran Talks in March

In yet another apparent episode of the inability of the White House to steer a consistent diplomatic course in the Middle East, a new report says that the George W. Bush administration ordered U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad in March to postpone indefinitely the talks with Iran on Iraq for which Khalilzad had previously gotten White House approval.

The reversal of the earlier authorization for talks with Iran has resulted in a widening chasm between the United States and the other major powers on how to reach a diplomatic solution with Iran on the nuclear issue.

Washington Post columnist David Ignatius reported on Friday that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice "froze" the talks on Iraq that the United States and Iran had agreed to in mid-March, telling Khalilzad "it wasn’t the right time to meet."

Previously it had been reported that the talks had been postponed only until the formation of a new government in Baghdad. Rice told reporters on the plane to Berlin Mar. 29-30 that the talks would take place "sooner or later," suggesting that Khalilzad was "very busy right now in Iraq." The new report by Ignatius indicates, however, that it was a high-level political decision in Washington not to proceed with the talks at all.

Ignatius also revealed that Khalilzad had held "several secret meetings with an Iranian representative around the turn of the year." Such meetings were presumably to try to convince Tehran to agree to higher-level talks on Iraq.

Although he cites no source for these revelations, Ignatius has broken news in the past based on exclusive access to Khalilzad himself. Khalilzad has also used the press in the past to try to overcome resistance to his own policy initiatives from high-ranking officials in Washington.

The Post columnist attributes the March decision to scuttle the talks with Iran to Rice’s desire for close coordination of Iran strategy with the three European countries – Britain, France and Germany – which had been conducting direct negotiations with Iran. But the decision had much less to do with multilateral diplomacy on Iran than with the determination of Vice Pres. Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to avoid anything that legitimized the Islamic Republic of Iran.

That determination apparently overrode the preference of both Khalilzad and Rice. Rice’s initial comment, just before leaving for Sydney, Australia on Mar. 16, was that talks with Iran on Iraq "could be useful."

By the time she had arrived in Sydney, however, White House National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley and an unnamed "senior U.S. official" had denigrated the idea of such talks. Rice had apparently been informed that such talks were unacceptable to powerful figures in the administration. "We will see when and if those talks [with Iran] take place," she said in Sydney.

The bilateral U.S.-Iranian talks on Iraq were certainly not cut off to coordinate multilateral diplomacy on the Iranian nuclear issue more closely. All those involved in the negotiations except the United States had agreed by March that Washington needed to have direct negotiations with Tehran to achieve a settlement of the conflict over Iran’s nuclear program.

On Mar. 8, after a meeting of the Governing Board of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Director General Mohammed ElBaradei told the press, "Throughout the spectrum, everybody underscored the need to look for a comprehensive political settlement that takes account of all underlying issues." And he added, "I believe that once we start to discuss security issues, my personal view is that the U.S. should be engaged into [sic] a dialogue."

The Europeans – particularly France and Germany – have long been dismayed at Washington’s refusal to enter into diplomatic dialogue with Iran on the nuclear issue. They viewed the expected talks with Iran about stabilizing Iraq as an opportunity open up a channel for U.S.-Iran negotiations on nuclear issues.

The most aggressive of the European three in pressing this point has been Germany, whose Chancellor Angela Merkel the Bush administration had expected to follow Washington’s lead on Iran. Instead, the Merkel government has now become the most aggressive of the European three in telling the United States that it must agree to direct U.S. participation in negotiations with Iran.

During a visit to Washington Apr. 3-4, German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told reporters he had advised Rice and Hadley that the talks he understood were to occur between the United States and Iran should not be limited to Iraq but should include the nuclear issue as well, according a report by AFP and the German television network Deutsche Welle.

Steinmeier also said that British foreign minister Jack Straw joined him in supporting direct U.S.-Iranian negotiations. Straw, who had infuriated hardliners in the United States by referring to an attack on Iran as "inconceivable" and unjustified, was replaced by Prime Minister Tony Blair as foreign minister early this month.

In an interview with International Herald Tribune reporter Judy Dempsey in late April, German defence minister Franz Josef Jung struck the same theme. "This is our request to Washington: that it begins direct talks and from there reach results," Jung said.. When Merkel arrived in Washington for a meeting with Bush on May 3, the White House expected her to raise the issue directly with Bush. A senior U.S. Official told the Financial Times that Bush would reaffirm U.S. opposition to direct negotiations with Iran should she do so, according to a May 3 story.

France has taken the same view of the problem since at least last Jul. 5, when French foreign minister Philippe Douste-Blazy, standing next to Condoleezza Rice, pledged that the European three would discuss with Iranians "the security of their country."

Then he added, "And for this, we shall need the United States – and we shall talk with them before proposing the package – making the proposal." But Rice did not comment on his bid for an active U.S. role in negotiating with Tehran, and no European proposal involving security was forthcoming.

The administration’s refusal to meet with Iran is now at the heart of the protracted discussions between the United States and the five other powers on a common position on Iran. The European three, China and Russia have all been insisting since a meeting in New York May 8 that the United States sign on to a package of incentives to Iran that includes not only nuclear technology but security guarantees for Iran, as reported by Philip Sherwill of the London Telegraph May 9.

The U.S. stance, with its implicit rejection of substantive compromise with Iran and its readiness to use force on the issue, is also the main reason why Russia, China and Germany have made it clear they are opposed any U.N. resolution that would levy sanctions against Iran.

Some in the administration may be open to an eventual shift of policy. Newsweek reported May 15 that Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns had "indicated to colleagues that he is mainly waiting for the right moment, when America’s leverage and its chances of success are maximized."

But Bush appears to be listening not to the diplomats but to the same figures who vetoed the direct talks with Iran in March and have been irrevocably opposed for more than four years to any dealings with Tehran.

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Author: Gareth Porter

Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published in 2006.