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Reading Condi on Iran PDF Print E-mail
Peace News
Sunday, 04 June 2006 23:08
Reading Condi on Iran

AG -
Tom Porteous - There are two possible readings of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's conditional offer of direct negotiations with Tehran to solve the dispute over Iran's nuclear enrichment programme. One is that this is a serious offer that could, along with European and UN diplomacy, pave the way for a diplomatic solution and provide a much needed exit from the present U.S. trajectory towards a military showdown. This is the way the story has thus far been spun in much of the mainstream European and North American media.


Whether the United States is presenting a serious off to Iran or following a similar trajectory as led to the invasion of Iraq, what obtains with Iran is not to be determined by the United States alone. Iran is diplomatically skilful, and the U.S. position is degraded by the Iraq occupation and the consequent regional unrest.

Rice's Iran Gambit
Tom Porteous

 Copyright ? 2006 Tom Porteous / Agence Global
[republsihed at PEJ News with permission of AG]

The second is that it is not a serious offer, that it is designed to fail, and that its real aim is to strengthen the U.S. argument for unified resolve at the UN Security Council to adopt a tough approach (and eventually even a military one) to Iran once the offer has indeed failed. This more cynical interpretation is credible because the American offer sets the bar impossibly high for the Iranians. The U.S. precondition for negotiations is that the Iranians abandon exactly what those negotiations are supposed to tackle (i.e., the nuclear enrichment programme).

But whatever U.S. strategic calculations underlie Rice's gambit on Iran, the outcome is not entirely in Washington's hands. How the diplomacy plays out in the coming weeks and months will also be determined by the reaction of the Iranians and by events on the ground in the region -- in particular in Iraq.

Throughout this crisis the Iranians have played a skilful diplomatic hand and there is no reason to believe that this is about to change. In response to Rice's offer of direct negotiations Iran has already said it is ready to negotiate with anyone (though not with pre-conditions). And in response to the latest European proposals (a choice between attractive incentives if Iran gives up its nuclear enrichment, and unpalatable sanctions if it refuses) the Iranians have indicated that they are ready to study them seriously. At the same time, with an eye on regional public opinion, Iranian leaders have kept up their vocal criticism of U.S. and Israeli policies in the Middle East.

Whatever the Iranians' final response to the coordinated U.S./European initiative, it is unlikely that it will leave room for the United States to argue convincingly (especially to China, Russia and possibly France) that Tehran has closed the door to further negotiations and that a hard-line international approach is now justified. (After all, Iran does have a legal to right to continue a civilian nuclear programme and has always denied that it has a secret military one.)

On the other hand, it is also certain that the Iranians will drive a hard bargain in return for any negotiated concessions on the nuclear programme. First, they will insist on unconditional negotiations with Washington. Second, they will seek firm security guarantees and normalisation of relations with the United States. And third, if President Ahmadinejad's recent letter to President Bush is any guide, they will likely want to put a number of regional issues on the table, including Iraq and Israel/Palestine.

Events on the ground will also be an important factor in determining the outcome of the new U.S. diplomacy on Iran. In this instance the trend of events has so far been very much in Iran's favour. Indeed, Rice has made this latest offer only because America's acute discomfort in Iraq and in the wider region has limited its options on Iran.

In 2003, the architects of the war in Iraq countered the concerns of "realist" opponents of the war by asserting that the invasion of Iraq would create a new U.S. controlled "reality" in the Middle East that would be wholly to the strategic advantage of the United States and its allies (especially Israel). Many were inclined to agree, including the Iranians who perhaps rightly feared that the next stop for the Americans after Baghdad would be Tehran.

Now the situation is transformed. The "reality" in the Middle East in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq is not controlled by the United States or anyone else. It is highly unstable. And Iran's strategic position is much strengthened both with regard to Iraq (where their Shia allies have won much power) and in the wider region. Furthermore Iran's quiet strategic victories have unified the normally fragmented Iranian regime around a common national purpose -- a purpose which almost certainly includes the determined development of a nuclear deterrent capability to preserve Iran's regional influence and to address emergent threats to Iranian interests from the United States, Israel and growing regional insecurity.

In Washington, by contrast, the collapse of U.S. strategy in Iraq and the wider region has created disunity, recrimination and uncertainty about what to do next and how to do it. Rice's offer of direct talks with the Iranians is a reflection of all this (and it is probably opposed by the administration's hawks). Even so, it does not go nearly far enough given the relative weakness of the American position.

Three factors now militate against President Bush now granting sufficient U.S. concessions to the Iranians to make diplomacy work. First, he is boxed in by his "war on terror" rhetoric (widely echoed in much of the U.S. media) with its unmistakable pro-Israeli and anti-Iranian overtones. Second, he is in denial about the extent to which his policies in the Middle East have undermined the United States' negotiating position with Iran. And third, Bush appears to believe (with Cheney and most of the senior U.S. leadership) that anything, even a war with Iran, is better than a nuclear armed Iran.

Thus the possibility remains that even if Rice is serious about the latest U.S. offer to Iran, even if Iran responds seriously, and even if America's strategic position in the region continues to weaken (as is likely), the latest diplomatic initiative will fail. And this failure will bring closer the prospect of a military confrontation with Iran for which the Pentagon is already planning. That is certainly something to worry about.

Tom Porteous is a syndicated columnist and author, formerly with the BBC and the British Foreign Office.

 Copyright ? 2006 Tom Porteous / Agence Global

Released: 05 June 2006
Word Count: 995
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Agence Global is the exclusive syndication agency for The Nation and The American Prospect, as well as expert commentary by William Beeman, Richard Bulliet, Juan Cole, Mark Hertsgaard, Rami G. Khouri, Tom Porteous, Patrick Seale and Immanuel Wallerstein.

Last Updated on Sunday, 04 June 2006 23:08

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