A Missed Opportunity

European Union foreign-policy supremo Javier Solana went to Tehran recently to offer a new round of incentives. Where was the American representative?

European Union foreign-policy chief Javier Solana went to Tehran last weekend for the first time in many months to present a new version of incentives for Iran to suspend its uranium-enrichment program. Solana was accompanied by several other European diplomats. Iran rejected the offer, citing what it regards as unacceptable preconditions. But the meeting was a lost opportunity before it even took place, because the United States did not send anyone along.

Underlying the Bush administration's failures on Iran has been a refusal to recognize the Iranian government-a basic prerequisite for successful diplomacy. Two years ago, when Condoleezza Rice announced that the United States would join the Europeans, Russia and China in negotiations with Iran-provided it suspended its enrichment program-I asked her if that meant the Bush administration was tacitly recognizing the Iranian government. Rice replied that "what's being provided legitimacy here is the negotiating process," not the Iranian regime.

Such comments are characteristic of a U.S. policy that has failed to stop Iran's nuclear march. Recognizing the Iranian government is not the same as approving of it. The Bush administration's reluctance to give up its hopes for regime change in Iran has undermined the rationale for Iran to change its behavior in ways that could benefit the United States and its allies. U.S. policies have instead strengthened the most militant elements in Tehran.

Sending an American to Tehran with Solana might not have resulted in a breakthrough but it could have laid the groundwork for one. It would have been a potent symbol that the United States acknowledges, after nearly thirty years, that the government of Iran is not about to disappear anytime soon and that it is a key regional player. It would have been a sign of respect that could have helped ease tensions in a troubled part of the world. It might even have brought down the price of oil and provided some real comfort to American consumers who are suffering the consequences of the Bush administration's domestic and foreign miscalculations.


Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the author of Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S. and the Twisted Path to Confrontation. The views expressed here are her own.