Iran talks doomed to 'small talk'
By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - The United States decision to send the State Department's
third-ranking official - William Burns - to sit in on the meeting between
European Union foreign affairs chief Javier Solana and Iran's nuclear
negotiator Saeed Jalili on Saturday has been hailed as a major diplomatic
breakthrough, but it is too soon to pop the champagne cork.
The caveats associated with decision and the circumstances surrounding it
suggest that it may be yet another in a string of non-decisions on diplomatic
talks and other Iran policy issues by President George W Bush over the past
Envoys from the US, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany - the so-called
"Iran Six" - attended the Geneva meeting. The
prospects of ending the stalemate over Iran's nuclear program looked poor as
Jalili said after the talks that Iran would not discuss a demand to freeze its
In return, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Monday Iran was using
stalling tactics and warned it faced more sanctions if it flouted a two-week
deadline to curb its nuclear program.
Reacting to the news that Burns would attend Saturday's meeting, The New York
Times called it a "double shift in the policy struggle". That was a reference
to the administration's previous position that the US would not talk with Iran
until it had suspended uranium enrichment and to past general disparagement of
talks with Iran by the "Iran Six".
Burns, the under secretary of state for political affairs, called it a "major
change" in US policy. That is the also the line embraced by Rice and other
advocates of diplomatic engagement in Washington, who are eager to convey to
Iran a new flexibility on the part of the administration.
However, Rice was quoted on Monday as saying that Jalili had engaged in small
talk rather than tackling the demand that Tehran give up sensitive nuclear work
in exchange for diplomatic and financial benefits. "I understand that it was at
times meandering," Rice was reported to have said.
Earlier, The Guardian of London said that the presence of Burns at the meeting
"suggests that a deal is in the offing".
But viewing the Burns trip to Geneva as a decisive breakthrough on Iran
certainly exaggerates the victory of Rice and Gates over Vice President Dick
Cheney, who wants to steer US policy away from any serious diplomatic
White House spokesperson Dana Perino and State Department spokesperson Sean
McCormack both described the Burns participation as "a one-time" offer.
McCormack said no further meetings were planned unless Iran suspended its
uranium-enrichment program, and that Burns' role in the meeting was limited to
one of listening.
This decision fell short of what had been planned by the "Iran Six" last
spring. They had agreed informally on a "freeze-for-freeze" proposal that would
allow preliminary talks to take place involving the US and Iran on the nuclear
program over a six week period.
Diplomatic sources have described the "freeze-for-freeze" as requiring that
Iran would not add any more centrifuges and the six powers would not act to
increase their sanctions during a six-week period.
According to an European Union source with direct knowledge of Solana's
meetings with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and Jalili, on June
14, however, what Solana presented was different from the "freeze-for-freeze"
proposal that had been discussed among the six powers.
The source was not authorized to explain the difference between the two
proposals, but it now appears that Solana could not present the original
freeze-for-freeze proposal on behalf of all six powers because the most
important actor of all - the United States - had objected.
When State Department spokesman McCormack was first asked about an EU
"freeze-for-freeze" proposal on July 3 and whether it was acceptable to the US,
he twice avoided addressing it altogether. But when a reporter asked in regard
to the proposed informal talks, "You do it then via the EU-3 [Britain, France
and Germany], right, not the P5+1 [Iran Six}?" McCormack answered, "Via Mr
When a reporter asked whether he could "flatly state" that it was Bush's policy
to refuse to sit down with the Iranians unless they stopped the enrichment
program completely, McCormack made no effort to nuance his answer. "That is our
policy," he replied.
The US was thus insisting that it would not participate in the six weeks of
informal talks based on the "freeze-for-freeze" proposal. That position would
defeat the main point of holding preliminary informal talks, which was to get
around the existing barrier to substantive negotiations on the Iranian nuclear
program - the demand for a complete suspension of enrichment by Iran.
The Iranian decision to accept the Solana formula for informal talks was
conveyed to Solana by a letter from Mottaki and a phone call from Jalili on
July 4. But when Solana announced a meeting with Jalili in Geneva to take place
on July 19, he was carefully ambiguous about what other states would be
involved, if any.
It is now clear that this ambiguity was necessary, because he was waiting for
the results of Rice's efforts to get Bush to agree to the Solana formula.
When Bush finally did agree to the participation of Burns in the July 19
meeting, it was on terms that were very different from what Solana had proposed
to Tehran. The limitation of the US commitment to a single meeting and the
tight constraints imposed on Burns suggest that the decision was heavily
influenced by Cheney, who has had overall control of Iran policy since 2005.
Those constraints on the US diplomatic role in the talks with Iran are
reminiscent of a series of Bush decisions on diplomatic engagement with Tehran
that were either tightly circumscribed, or reversed altogether because of
Cheney's intervention with Bush.
In March 2006, Bush gave his approval to talks with Iran on the crisis in Iraq,
which had been proposed by US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad. Rice had given her
blessing to the talks when they were first announced, but by the time she
arrived in Sydney, Australia, she had been informed that such talks were
unacceptable to someone in the administration. In May, she was told by
Khalilzad that "it wasn't the right time to meet" with Iran.
In May 2006, Rice was working with the other five members of the coalition to
craft a proposal aimed at signaling that they were willing to deal with Iran's
security and regional political and security interests. But language to that
end proposed by the Europeans was taken out at the insistence of the US,
reflecting Cheney's determination to ensure that the process failed to reach
Bush also wavered and reversed a decision he had originally made in late 2005
to negotiate with Sunni insurgent groups in Iraq. Khalilzad actually met with
the Sunni insurgent leaders seven times over a period of six weeks beginning in
January 2006. But Bush ordered a halt to the negotiations after senior
officials objected, even though the Sunnis had offered a draft peace proposal.
Any sign of US interest in negotiations has encouraged Iranian leaders to be
more forthcoming on talks. Even Rice's willingness to sign the six-power
incentives document was reported by the Times to have "visibly stunned" Iranian
Foreign Minister Mottaki.
But as things have turned out, the approval of the Burns trip to Geneva for a
single meeting with Iran's negotiator seems more like a Bush non-decision on
Iran policy than it does a fundamental policy shift.
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing
in US national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book,
Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was
published in 2006.