WASHINGTON - Conciliatory noises from Tehran over the nuclear issue have left
Washington and Brussels baffled, and unconvinced of Iran's intentions. Having
grown accustomed to President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's uncompromising language,
Tehran's new tone has raised more suspicion than hope among cynics in Western
At a lunch with a dozen journalists in New York last week, Iranian Foreign
Minister Manouchehr Mottaki indicated that Iran would likely respond favorably
to the latest proposal by the United Nations' Security Council's five permanent
members plus Germany ("Iran Six"). The reason seems to be that alongside an
incentive package that didn't differ significantly from a 2006 package that
Tehran rejected, a formula may have been agreed on that would enable all
parties to come to the negotiating table
without losing face. (The five members are the United States, France, China,
Britain and Russia.)
European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana presented the formula orally
to the Iranians: for a period of six weeks, Iran would halt any advancement in
its enrichment activities while the Security Council would refrain from
imposing additional sanctions on Iran. During this period, the Europeans and
Iran would negotiate an agreement on the modalities of a full suspension, after
which the United States would formally join the talks. This way, Tehran can
claim that it didn't suspend as a precondition, but rather as a result of
talks, and Washington can claim that it did not join talks until Iran had
suspended all enrichment activities.
This formula is not new, however. Why - and whether - Iran will agree to it now
has become the subject of much speculation. In typical fashion, Iran has sent
contradictory signals. Iran's foreign minister struck an uncharacteristically
conciliatory tone in New York, refusing to repeat Tehran's mantra that
enrichment is non-negotiable. Days before, former foreign minister Ali Akbar
Velayati argued in favor of negotiations in an interview to the conservative
daily, Jomhouriye Eslami.
As a senior advisor to Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei,
Velayati's words carry particular weight. Not only did Velayati reassert
Khamenei's dominion over the making of Iranian foreign policy, he indirectly
rebuked Ahmadinejad for his radical stance and argued that Iran should
negotiate since it had won de facto recognition for its right to enrich.
Iran would negotiate from a position of strength, unlike other regional powers
that had negotiated out of weakness and had been humiliated by the West
accordingly. And since the George W Bush administration didn't want Iran to
respond favorably to the "Iran Six" proposal, Iran should engage in diplomacy
and show the international community that it was not the obstacle to peace, in
On the other hand, government spokesperson Gholamhossein Elham dampened hopes
of a breakthrough by publicly rejecting a freeze on Iran's nuclear activities,
asserting that negotiations should take place without Iran agreeing to Solana's
formula. According to early reports, Iran's formal response to Solana seemed to
have been in line with Elham's - and not Velayati or Mottaki's - statements.
Reactions in the West have varied from skepticism to outright suspicion. Tehran
is either putting on a nicer face to win time or it has recognized the dangers
of an Israeli attack and is showing greater flexibility as a direct result of
the Jewish state's muscle-flexing. Tehran only responds to force (or threats of
force) and the imposition of new sanctions by the EU combined with Israeli
bluster has proven that point, the argument reads.
While Iran certainly may be playing for time - reducing tensions tactically
while awaiting the Bush administration's exit from the US political scene could
help outmaneuver any effort by Washington to push for additional measures
against Iran - the idea that Iran is responding to the threat of force remains,
at best, an incomplete explanation of the latest developments.
If the threat of force has caused the Iranians to bend, then it remains a
mystery as to why Tehran didn't succumb two years ago when it was more
vulnerable and the credibility of the threat was greater. Today, oil prices are
twice as high as they were in 2006, the Bush administration's credibility is at
an all-time low, the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate has made military
strikes more complicated politically, and the public mood in the United States
- even among supporters of Republican senator and presidential hopeful John
McCain - is in favor of diplomacy.
If Velayati's words are to be taken at face value, then confidence rather than
fear may have been a more important factor in the prospective Iranian decision.
The debate in Tehran over this issue seems to have centered on whether to
continue defying the Security Council or to consolidate Iranian gains. Those
favoring the latter have likely realized the Bush administration itself has
helped make Iranian defiance successful. Critics argue that the Bush team's
lack of credibility and incompetence has made it more difficult to assemble a
strong international coalition against Iran. Washington's soft power with the
EU under Bush has been negligible, forcing the president to strong-arm his
European allies to go along with more stringent economic measures against Iran.
But with Bush out of the picture by January 2009, the utility and risk of the
Ahmadinejad line can change dramatically. Whether it is Democratic Senator
Barack Obama or McCain, the next commander in chief will begin his presidency
with a significantly higher cachet with the Europeans. The hunger for
strengthening trans-Atlantic ties and putting the past eight years of bickering
behind them is palpable in Europe. One European diplomat indicated to Inter
Press Service that Europe would even willingly go along with all the measures
Bush has called for - as long as they are consulted by the next president.
In addition, Washington could enjoy much greater pull with non-aligned
countries, including Asian nations whose unwillingness to go along with
sanctions have provided Tehran with an economic escape route.
Consequently, greater interest in the freeze-for-freeze formula may have less
to do with recent Israeli bluster and more to do with the greater political
pull enjoyed by the next US administration.
Furthermore, proponents of the Solana proposal in Tehran believe that a US-Iran
rapprochement can be achieved under the next US administration if diplomacy is
pursued. To facilitate the next US president's decision to negotiate, however,
Tehran must help improve the political atmosphere and provide the next US
commander-in-chief with a better starting point for diplomacy.
Initiating discussions at this stage could tie both an Obama and a McCain
presidency to the diplomatic track. Whoever wins the elections will inherit a
less problematic dispute and enjoy greater political maneuverability as a
result. This is particularly true for Obama, since the Illinois senator's
willingness to pursue diplomacy may not match his political ability to do so if
the nuclear deadlock persists.
Mottaki may have alluded to just that in his interview with CNN this week. "We
hear new voices in America ... and we think that the rational thinkers in
America can, based on these new approaches, seek reality as it is. We are ready
to help them in this endeavor."
Whether proponents of dialogue in Tehran and Washington can initiate a process
of mutual reinforcement is another matter. Even if Tehran agrees to the
freeze-for-freeze formula, the Iranians will likely only agree to a full
suspension if it isn't open-ended, isn't tied to the continuation of talks but
progress in talks, and if the aim of the diplomacy is to limit but not
eliminate Iran's enrichment capability.
Neither Britain nor France has shown any flexibility on these central points so
far. But fearing that a prospective Obama administration will do away with
"self-defeating preconditions" and soften Washington's stance on enrichment,
the EU might feel compelled to talk to Tehran with the next US administration
in mind and not the current one. If so, Tehran's softer tone may drive a wedge
between the US and its allies - an objective on which all Iranian factions
Trita Parsi is the author of Treacherous Alliance - The Secret Dealings
of Israel, Iran and the US, a silver medal recipient of the Council on Foreign
Relations' Arthur Ross Book Award, the most significant award for a book on