Offer in the Offing?

As pressure from the West increases, Iran is showing signs that it may be ready to make some concessions. Is the United States ready to compromise?

New York-Faced with mounting sanctions and threats of military action over its nuclear program, Iran has decided to respond with a smile, not a sneer. It has given a qualified "yes" to a proposal that could freeze its installation of centrifuges and perhaps even its enrichment of uranium. It remains unclear whether the Iranian response is a ploy to stave off more punishment before U.S. elections or a genuine overture to a skeptical international community.

Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki began the charm offensive last week when he invited a dozen U.S. journalists to lunch at the Iranian mission to the United Nations. Mottaki, who has never before extended such an invitation, was unusually conciliatory if vague. "There is a new trend in the developments in the region" because of two new proposals over Iran's nuclear program that have elements in common, Mottaki said. One is an Iranian offer for dialogue addressed in May to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon; the other is a proposal by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (the so-called P-5 plus One) for enhanced cooperation with Iran in the civilian nuclear and other fields.

The second proposal, presented to Iran last month by European Union foreign-policy chief Javier Solana, allows for a six-week period of "pre-negotiations" during which Iran would not add to its centrifuge capacity of about three thousand and no new sanctions would be imposed. For real negotiations (including the United States) to begin, Iran would have to suspend uranium enrichment for the duration of talks, as demanded by three Security Council resolutions.

In the past, Iranian officials have routinely insisted on a right to enrich and refused suspension as a precondition for talks. But when asked three times at the lunch whether Iran still insisted on such a right, Mottaki was mum. Mottaki also responded mildly to questions about threats of military action by Israel and the United States. "We look at it as psychological warfare," he said. He seemed blasé about new reports of U.S. support for covert action against the Iranian regime by dissident Iranian ethnic minority groups. "Our people are protecting their revolution," he said, and "will not exchange the sweetness of independence for the bitterness of dependency."

Mottaki promised a quick response to the P-5 plus One proposal and on Friday, he sent a letter to Solana offering to begin comprehensive negotiations with a "positive attitude." Solana is expected to meet soon with Saeed Jalili, Iran's top nuclear negotiator, to probe the Iranian position.

Until recently, Iran has shown little interest in talks with a lame duck Bush administration. The conventional wisdom has been that Iran is determined to accelerate its nuclear program to present the next U.S. president with facts on the ground in the form of thousands of spinning centrifuges. According to this line of reasoning, if the next president is Barack Obama-who has offered talks without preconditions-Iran could begin negotiations without losing face.

But Iran learned in 2004 that U.S. electoral politics are unpredictable and that even winning candidates do not always implement their campaign promises. Facing its own presidential elections next year, the Iranian regime may want to start a process that the next U.S. administration could continue, while at the same time removing any pretext for military action or more sanctions in the next six months. New banking restrictions imposed by the Europeans appear to have gotten Tehran's attention. So have Israel's recent military exercises over the Mediterranean, an apparent trial run for an attack on Iran's nuclear installations. With oil over $140 a barrel and the United States looking for a graceful exit from Iraq, Iran is at the peak of its leverage and may feel that this is the optimum time to engage. There is also the example of the administration's about-face on North Korea to suggest that a diplomatic solution is possible.

Mottaki began his remarks by noting that "the first word diplomats learn is compromise." He ended by saying that "crises around the world today need collective answers." Is Iran ready to make concessions and if so, will the Bush administration take yes for an answer? The next few weeks could tell.


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 here expressed are her own.