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    Middle East
     Jun 2, 2006
More hot air over Iran


Wednesday's offer to Iran by the United States that Washington is willing to join ongoing talks between the EU-3 and Tehran, provided that the Islamic Republic first "verifiably" freeze its uranium-enrichment efforts, smacks of brinkmanship.

Ever since Iran renewed enrichment activities this year, after voluntarily suspending them during negotiations with the EU-3 (Britain, France and Germany) over its nuclear program, Tehran has consistently and vocally insisted that it would not give up this right, as is its entitlement under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to which it is a signatory.

Knowing this, Washington offering to talk, while attaching the enrichment proviso, can only be viewed as a politically motivated gesture on the part of US Secretary of State Condoleezza



Rice, whose comments were subsequently endorsed by President George W Bush.

Tehran certainly sees it this way.

"Halting enrichment definitely doesn't meet Iran's interests," the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) said in response to Rice's offer. "Given the insistence by Iranian authorities on continuing uranium enrichment, Rice's comments can be considered a propaganda move."

And on Thursday, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki shot back with his own offer to the US. "We will not give up our nation's natural right [to enrichment], we will not hold talks over it. But we are ready to hold talks over mutual concerns. Iran supports fair talks without discrimination."

Last month, a draft resolution of the United Nations Security Council called on Iran to halt all uranium-enrichment-related activities and threatened to take "additional steps" if necessary. It gave the International Atomic Energy Agency one more chance to seek Iran's compliance with its, and the IAEA's, demands, pending the possible implementation of sanctions.

Of the five veto-wielding members of the council, Russia and China oppose imposing sanctions. These five - the other three are the United States, France and the United Kingdom - plus Germany were due to meet in Vienna on Thursday to discuss a "sweetener" package to induce Iran to stop its nuclear activities.

This is the status quo; all that the US offer does is muddy the waters, perhaps with the aim of appearing to be more receptive to talking to the mullahs, this under some pressure from the EU-3.

The Europeans, who for the past three years have acted as Washington's surrogates in talks with Iran, have also appealed with growing urgency - most recently via last week's visit to Washington by British Prime Minister Tony Blair - for the US to join them at the table.

Iran and the United States have had no formal diplomatic relations since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, in which militants stormed the US Embassy in Tehran and held 52 American hostages for 444 days. Since then, the two countries also have had no formal face-to-face talks, bilateral or multilateral.

Yet the US "offer" to talk now is couched in bellicose and threatening language, and not too subtly injects clearly unproven accusations that Iran is pursuing a nuclear-weapons program.

Said Rice, "The negative choice is for the [Iranian] regime to maintain its current course, pursuing nuclear weapons in defiance of the international community and its international obligations. If the regime does so, it will incur only great cost. We and our European partners agree that that path will lead to international isolation, and progressively stronger political and economic sanctions."

An opening for talks
Last month, in an unprecedented 18-page letter from President Mahmud Ahmadinejad to Bush, the Iranian leader said his country was ready to engage in direct talks with Washington on a range of issues, including its nuclear program, reports Jim Lobe of Inter Press Service (IPS) in the US capital.

"Some kind of positive response became almost obligatory, especially in the context of Ahmadinejad's letter and other reported feelers that Tehran has put out," said Charles Kupchan, director of European Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

In addition to trying to persuade Washington to join the talks, the EU-3 have also promoted a package that includes providing Iran with light-water nuclear reactors, trade benefits and other economic incentives, and discussion of a "framework" to address Iran's security concerns.

The last component, however, is strongly opposed by US hardliners, who are led by Vice President Dick Cheney and favor a policy of regime change in Iran.

One source on Wednesday suggested that Bush administration hawks may have gone along with Rice's offer in exchange for European promises that Washington would not be asked to provide security assurances as part of any eventual negotiation.

Indeed, in answer to a reporter's question on Wednesday, Rice stressed that "we have not been asked about security assurances, and I don't expect that we will be".

She also stated that the administration was not taking its military options off the table and stressed that Washington was not interested, at least for now, either in bilateral talks or in negotiations for a "grand bargain" with Tehran that would address all of the key issues that have divided the two countries.

Such diplomacy has been recently advocated by a number of prominent Republicans, including the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Richard Lugar, and Richard Armitage, who served as deputy secretary of state during Bush's first term.

"We are not in a position to talk about full diplomatic relations with a state with which we have so many fundamental differences," said Rice, who added, however, that a successful resolution of the nuclear question could "change the relationship that it has with the United States [and] begin to open the possibilities for cooperation".

The careful terms in which she couched the new offer, as well as the precondition that she imposed on it, made clear to observers in Washington that the internal battle over Iran policy between Bush administration hardliners and the "realists" centered at the State Department remains unresolved, even if the latter appear to have scored an important victory.

"We know that this is an issue over which a lot of blood has been spilled in the corridors of power," Kupchan told IPS. "I would assume that what one could call the State Department gang is prevailing in this round of the fight, although it's not over."

"For the purists, even a stated willingness to talk with the Tehran regime is hard to swallow, whether conditional or not," he said.

Indeed, as European pressure on the US administration to compromise increased over the past weeks, hardline neo-conservatives, whose influence in the administration runs chiefly through Cheney's office, have been arguing that by talking directly with Tehran, Washington would not only fall into a "trap" designed to extract more US concessions, but also would demoralize the "opposition" in Iran by implicitly according unprecedented recognition to the regime.

(Copyright 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing .)


Don't forget Iran's democracy movement (Jun 1, '06)

Khamenei in control and ready to 'haggle' (May 31, '06)

Carrots, sticks and the isolation of Iran (May 27, '06)

 
 



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