US About-Face on Talks With Iran Draws Mixed Reactions

Patrick Goodenough | International Editor | Thursday, June 1, 2006

US About-Face on Talks With Iran Draws Mixed Reactions

( - Washington's policy reversal on Iran's nuclear activity has been warmly welcomed by its European Union allies, but it's also drawing criticism from conservatives who warned that it may be a mistake.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Wednesday the U.S. was prepared to join Britain, Germany and France in the E.U.-3's talks with Iran -- but only if the Islamic republic "fully and verifiably suspends its [uranium] enrichment and reprocessing activities."

Diplomatic ties between the U.S. and Iran have been severed since the 1979 Islamic revolution, which prompted the occupation of the U.S. Embassy and 444-day hostage crisis.

E.U. foreign policy chief Javier Solana welcomed Rice's announcement, saying direct U.S. involvement in negotiations "would be the strongest and most positive signal of our common wish to reach an agreement with Iran," while British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett urged Iran to respond positively to the "opportunity."

Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik of Austria -- current holder of the rotating E.U. presidency -- told E.U. lawmakers that direct dialogue between Washington and Tehran would contribute significantly to efforts to develop a "cooperative relationship" with Iran.

Solana and the E.U.-3 foreign ministers are to meet in Vienna Thursday to discuss an E.U. package of incentives aimed at encouraging Iran to abandon nuclear activities the West suspects are a front for attempts to develop atomic bombs.

It's the latest diplomatic push in a long-running standoff with Tehran, which insists its program is designed only to generate electricity.

After two years of failed negotiations involving the E.U. trio and Iran, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) earlier this year eventually referred the matter to the U.N. Security Council, where the U.S. has been pressing for tougher steps against Iran in the face of Chinese and Russian resistance.

Up to now, Iran has consistently refused to give up its "right" to enrich uranium, and it's unclear whether it will respond any differently to the new U.S. position, given the emphatic precondition that it stop its nuclear activities. The official Irna news agency's early reaction was to dismiss Rice's announcement as "propaganda."

Reaction from some U.S. conservatives was not much warmer.

Center for Security Policy President Frank Gaffney saw the conditional offer to talk to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government as a reward for Tehran's "intransigence and provocations," which would only lead to more such behavior.

He attributed the decision to recommendations by "appeasement-prone" members of the administration, and pointed specifically to Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns.

"Burns is leading President Bush into a diplomatic morass from which it will prove exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to extricate this country before the Iranian regime realizes its ambition to acquire, and perhaps to use, nuclear weapons," Gaffney said.

"The folly of the Burns appeasement approach will be further compounded if, as seems likely, the effect is further to legitimate the mullahocracy and alienate our natural allies in its removal from power: the Iranian people."


A National Review editorial worried that the decision had provided the U.N. Security Council with "cover" to avoid making a decision on backing coercive measures against the regime.

"This new tack, which represents a significant shift in U.S. foreign policy, would be justified if it stood a decent chance of convincing the mullahs to dismantle their nuclear program," it said. "But the reality is that we have probably given up more than we have gained."

Heritage Foundation scholar James Phillips said that while the talks offer was designed "to call Iran's diplomatic bluff and mobilize international support for tough sanctions," it was risky.

"Tehran may interpret the diplomatic offer as a weakening of U.S. resolve to block Iran's drive for nuclear weapons. Or it may seek to exploit diplomatic talks to drive a wedge between the U.S. and its allies and to buy time to continue its nuclear efforts."

Phillips said it was crucial that Washington first secures its allies' agreement on a timeframe for the diplomatic effort and terms to be offered to Iran; as well as their commitment to impose strong sanctions if Iran balks or reneges.

"Only if the U.S., Europe, Japan, and other allies present a determined and united front in support of strong economic sanctions will they have a chance of dissuading Iran from continuing its nuclear efforts, short of war."

Support for the administration's initiative came from Ivo Daalder, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who called it "yet another sign that sanity may be returning to U.S. foreign policy."

But, he said, if the U.S. planned merely to sit down with the Iranians and "make demands," it would be better not to go at all.

"Now that we have said that we will talk, we must make clear that we are willing to settle all our differences through negotiations -- including, ultimately, reestablishing economic and diplomatic relations and providing security guarantees as part of a regional framework."

At her press conference Wednesday, Rice indicated that neither diplomatic relations nor security guarantees were presently on the agenda.

"This is not a grand bargain," she replied to a question about diplomatic ties. "We are not in a position to talk about full diplomatic relations with a state with which we have so many fundamental differences."

Rice also said the U.S. had many security issues of concern relating to Iran beyond the nuclear one. "We have not been asked about security assurances and I don't expect that we will be."

Among those calling recently for the Bush administration to engage directly with Iran was Senator Richard Lugar, the Republican chairman of the Senate's foreign relations committee.

Lugar's stance drew strong criticism at the time from Foundation for Democracy in Iran executive director Kenneth Timmerman, who said talking with the regime would "provide legitimacy for a band of international thugs who have broken every agreement they have ever made, and have never hesitated to use terrorists to accomplish their ends."

"It would send a devastating message to the Iranian patriots who are begging America to help them bring freedom to their country," he added.

See earlier story:
US Tells Iran to Choose Option A or Option B (May 31, 2006)

Subscribe to the free daily E-Brief.

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.