Washington’s Iran Pivot: How Big a Shift?

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Even as some Washington observers were still marveling at the Bush administration’s decision to send a diplomatic envoy to international nuclear talks with Iran to be held in Geneva this weekend, some analysts and close administration associates cautioned that the Bush administration really had not changed its underlying demand that Iran halt uranium enrichment before agreeing to sustained negotiations, and that the new diplomatic approach could be stillborn.

“If [Tehran agreeing to] zero enrichment is the expressed [US] objective, then this could be dead on arrival,” said Trita Parsi, president of the pro-engagement National Iranian American Council. “If [the US] is more flexible, and will consider something along [former US diplomat Thomas] Pickering’s plan,” for an internationally supervised nuclear enrichment facility in Tehran, then the talks might have some momentum, he said.

“Nothing has changed,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Wednesday. “If they don’t accept this offer, one, there will not be negotiations and two, there will be additional sanctions.”

“The substantive position remains unchanged — substantive negotiations on the issues await Iranian suspension of uranium enrichment,” said Philip Zelikow, former advisor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. US Iran envoy William J. “Burns will personally reinforce that message and join the Europeans in hearing the response.

“The US and our allies are against unconditional negotiations,” Zelikow continued. “Our main allies, like our government, don’t believe that talking is an end in itself. Otherwise we’ll talk and talk; they’ll build and build. Not a formula likely to relax tension.

“Instead talks have to be part of a plausible strategy, a means to an end,” he continued. “The objective is to stop Iran’s nuclear enrichment. The chosen strategy, at this time, is still to bring maximum peaceful pressure on the Iranian regime to make that choice.”

“The challenge for Iran is to convince everyone that our goal is being realized (note the grammar here, as this is a continuous process that extends indefinitely into the future), and that means building confidence first through a suspension of enrichment while we work out arrangements that achieve our goal with extremely high confidence,” said one US official closely involved with Iran policy in an email. “If Iran wants to create a nuclear weapon, as many suspect, then they will resist the necessary measures to convince us that our goal is being realized and this will go nowhere fast. Keep your eye on that ball and you will know where this is going. But if the Iranians have decided to declare victory and work this out, then much is possible.

“Diplomacy is the art of letting the other guy have your way,” he added. “Let’s see what happens next.”

(Photo of Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William J. Burns, courtesy of the State Department.)

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