Wising Up on Iran

It looks like the Bush administration is wising up: it’s sending an official to Geneva this weekend for multilateral talks with Iran. The question is, why now?

At a hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week, Undersecretary of State Bill Burns gave unusually nuanced testimony about Iran. Committee chairman Joe Biden of Delaware praised Burns, a veteran Foreign Service officer, but added wistfully, "I wish we had heard this in 2003, four, five, six or seven."

As news broke last night that Burns is headed for Geneva this weekend, to take part in multilateral discussions with Iranian nuclear negotiators, Biden's words resonated. With less than six months to go before it leaves office, the Bush administration is finally easing its precondition for high-level contacts with Iran. The question is why this is happening now and whether it comes too late.

For the past two years, the administration has refused such contacts unless Iran first suspended its uranium enrichment program. The result has been that Iran now has more than three thousand centrifuges spinning away, the price of oil has doubled and Iran's influence in the Middle East has substantially increased.

Explaining its change of policy this week, administration officials were at pains to insist that this is a "one-time" deal and that Burns would be there to listen and to show that the United States is fully supportive of a package of incentives presented to Iran last month by European Union foreign-policy chief Javier Solana on behalf of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (the so-called P-5 plus one.) Burns will not be negotiating, merely showing the flag, administration officials said, to convince Iran that the P-5 plus one offer is real.

Still the shift is clear. At least two interpretations are possible:

The first and most cynical is that President Bush believes diplomacy will not work but realizes he must at least go through the motions to avoid criticism that he is rushing to war.

The second is that, with the situation in Iraq somewhat stabilized and Western economic sanctions beginning to bite in Iran, the administration believes it has sufficient leverage to negotiate and that Iran is receptive to a deal.

Iranian politicians and hard-line newspapers have been signaling for several weeks that the country's Islamic regime is ready for talks and suggesting that the rest of the world, not Iran, has compromised to make negotiations possible. One newspaper, Hezbollah, said in its July 14 issue: "It seems that Washington has given up its first and last demand of the suspension of nuclear activities as a pre-condition to resume talks."

The object of this weekend's discussions is to get Iran to accept Solana's proposal for a six-week "freeze for freeze" during which time Iran will not add any new centrifuges to its facility in Natanz and the international community will impose no new sanctions. During this period, talks will proceed about an agenda for formal negotiations. The understanding is that Iran would suspend uranium enrichment for a limited time once those negotiations begin.

Given the track record of both Iran and the Bush administration, it is far too soon to celebrate any breakthroughs. Iran could be playing for time, hoping to stave off more sanctions until a new U.S. administration takes office. But both may be sensing a window of opportunity. Burns, who was assistant secretary of state for the Near East and South Asia in 2003 when the Bush administration rebuffed an offer for comprehensive negotiations from Iran's Khatami administration, referred in his testimony to the "long history of missed opportunities and crossed signals" between the United States and Iran. Much more knowledgeable about the Middle East than his predecessor as undersecretary, Nicholas Burns, Bill Burns may have convinced his bosses to give diplomacy a real chance.

Meanwhile, the Iranians, who have long offered to negotiate without preconditions, may be recognizing that starting a dialogue with the United States before Bush leaves office would make it easier for Bush's successor to engage. Coming at a time of financial chaos in the United States and military maneuvers and missile firings in the Middle East, even this glimmer of good news is welcome indeed.


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.