In yet another apparent episode of the inability
of the White House to steer a consistent diplomatic course in the Middle East,
a new report says that the George W. Bush administration ordered U.S. Ambassador
Zalmay Khalilzad in March to postpone indefinitely the talks with Iran on Iraq
for which Khalilzad had previously gotten White House approval.
The reversal of the earlier authorization for talks with Iran has resulted
in a widening chasm between the United States and the other major powers on
how to reach a diplomatic solution with Iran on the nuclear issue.
Washington Post columnist David Ignatius reported on Friday that Secretary
of State Condoleezza Rice "froze" the talks on Iraq that the United
States and Iran had agreed to in mid-March, telling Khalilzad "it wasn't
the right time to meet."
Previously it had been reported that the talks had been postponed only until
the formation of a new government in Baghdad. Rice told reporters on the plane
to Berlin Mar. 29-30 that the talks would take place "sooner or later,"
suggesting that Khalilzad was "very busy right now in Iraq." The new
report by Ignatius indicates, however, that it was a high-level political decision
in Washington not to proceed with the talks at all.
Ignatius also revealed that Khalilzad had held "several secret meetings
with an Iranian representative around the turn of the year." Such meetings
were presumably to try to convince Tehran to agree to higher-level talks on
Although he cites no source for these revelations, Ignatius has broken news
in the past based on exclusive access to Khalilzad himself. Khalilzad has also
used the press in the past to try to overcome resistance to his own policy initiatives
from high-ranking officials in Washington.
The Post columnist attributes the March decision to scuttle the talks with
Iran to Rice's desire for close coordination of Iran strategy with the three
European countries Britain, France and Germany which had been
conducting direct negotiations with Iran. But the decision had much less to
do with multilateral diplomacy on Iran than with the determination of Vice Pres.
Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to avoid anything that
legitimized the Islamic Republic of Iran.
That determination apparently overrode the preference of both Khalilzad and
Rice. Rice's initial comment, just before leaving for Sydney, Australia on Mar.
16, was that talks with Iran on Iraq "could be useful."
By the time she had arrived in Sydney, however, White House National Security
Adviser Stephen J. Hadley and an unnamed "senior U.S. official" had
denigrated the idea of such talks. Rice had apparently been informed that such
talks were unacceptable to powerful figures in the administration. "We
will see when and if those talks [with Iran] take place," she said in Sydney.
The bilateral U.S.-Iranian talks on Iraq were certainly not cut off to coordinate
multilateral diplomacy on the Iranian nuclear issue more closely. All those
involved in the negotiations except the United States had agreed by March that
Washington needed to have direct negotiations with Tehran to achieve a settlement
of the conflict over Iran's nuclear program.
On Mar. 8, after a meeting of the Governing Board of the International Atomic
Energy Agency, Director General Mohammed ElBaradei told the press, "Throughout
the spectrum, everybody underscored the need to look for a comprehensive political
settlement that takes account of all underlying issues." And he added,
"I believe that once we start to discuss security issues, my personal view
is that the U.S. should be engaged into [sic] a dialogue."
The Europeans particularly France and Germany have long been
dismayed at Washington's refusal to enter into diplomatic dialogue with Iran
on the nuclear issue. They viewed the expected talks with Iran about stabilizing
Iraq as an opportunity open up a channel for U.S.-Iran negotiations on nuclear
The most aggressive of the European three in pressing this point has been Germany,
whose Chancellor Angela Merkel the Bush administration had expected to follow
Washington's lead on Iran. Instead, the Merkel government has now become the
most aggressive of the European three in telling the United States that it must
agree to direct U.S. participation in negotiations with Iran.
During a visit to Washington Apr. 3-4, German foreign minister Frank-Walter
Steinmeier told reporters he had advised Rice and Hadley that the talks he understood
were to occur between the United States and Iran should not be limited to Iraq
but should include the nuclear issue as well, according a report by AFP and
the German television network Deutsche Welle.
Steinmeier also said that British foreign minister Jack Straw joined him in
supporting direct U.S.-Iranian negotiations. Straw, who had infuriated hardliners
in the United States by referring to an attack on Iran as "inconceivable"
and unjustified, was replaced by Prime Minister Tony Blair as foreign minister
early this month.
In an interview with International Herald Tribune reporter Judy Dempsey
in late April, German defence minister Franz Josef Jung struck the same theme.
"This is our request to Washington: that it begins direct talks and from
there reach results," Jung said.. When Merkel arrived in Washington for
a meeting with Bush on May 3, the White House expected her to raise the issue
directly with Bush. A senior U.S. Official told the Financial Times that Bush
would reaffirm U.S. opposition to direct negotiations with Iran should she do
so, according to a May 3 story.
France has taken the same view of the problem since at least last Jul. 5, when
French foreign minister Philippe Douste-Blazy, standing next to Condoleezza
Rice, pledged that the European three would discuss with Iranians "the
security of their country."
Then he added, "And for this, we shall need the United States and we
shall talk with them before proposing the package making the proposal."
But Rice did not comment on his bid for an active U.S. role in negotiating with
Tehran, and no European proposal involving security was forthcoming.
The administration's refusal to meet with Iran is now at the heart of the protracted
discussions between the United States and the five other powers on a common
position on Iran. The European three, China and Russia have all been insisting
since a meeting in New York May 8 that the United States sign on to a package
of incentives to Iran that includes not only nuclear technology but security
guarantees for Iran, as reported by Philip Sherwill of the London Telegraph
The U.S. stance, with its implicit rejection of substantive compromise with
Iran and its readiness to use force on the issue, is also the main reason why
Russia, China and Germany have made it clear they are opposed any U.N. resolution
that would levy sanctions against Iran.
Some in the administration may be open to an eventual shift of policy. Newsweek
reported May 15 that Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns had "indicated
to colleagues that he is mainly waiting for the right moment, when America's
leverage and its chances of success are maximized."
But Bush appears to be listening not to the diplomats but to the same figures
who vetoed the direct talks with Iran in March and have been irrevocably opposed
for more than four years to any dealings with Tehran.