The US decision to send the State Department's
third-ranking official to sit in on the meeting between European Union foreign
affairs chief Javier Solana and Iran's nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili 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 George W. Bush over the past three years.
The New York Times led news media interpretation of the announcement
by calling it a "double shift in the policy struggle". That was a
reference to the administration's previous position that the United States would
not talk with Iran until it had suspended uranium enrichment and to past general
disparagement of talks with Iran by the six global powers Britain, France,
China, Russia, the United States and Germany.
William J. Burns, the undersecretary of State for political affairs, who will
join the Geneva meeting, called it a "major change" in US policy.
That is the also the line embraced by Secretary of State Condoleezza 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.
The Guardian went even further, saying 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 negotiations.
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
McCormack also said Burns's role in the meeting would be limited to one of
listening rather than actually negotiating. That combination of a one-time participation
and the absence of any negotiating brief sharply reduces the diplomatic significance
of the decision.
The decision falls short of what had been planned by the six powers, also known
as the P5+1, last spring. They had agreed informally on a "freeze or freeze"
proposal that would allow preliminary talks to take place involving the United
States 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 its sanctions during the six-week period.
According to an EU source with direct knowledge of Solana's meetings with Iranian
foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki and nuclear negotiator Jalili, on Jun. 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 Jul. 3 and whether it was acceptable to the United
States, 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?" McCormack answered,
"Via Mr. Solana".
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 United States 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
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 Jul. 4. But
when Solana announced a meeting with Jalili in Geneva to take place on Jul.
19, he was carefully ambiguous about what other states would be involved, if
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 Solana formula.
When Bush finally did agree to the participation of Burns in the Jul. 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 coming talks with Iran
are reminiscent of 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 United
States, reflecting Cheney's determination to ensure that the process failed
to reach agreement.
Bush also wavered and reversed a decision he had originally made in late 2005
to negotiate with Sunni insurgent groups. 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. So Iran may well seek to exploit Burns's presence
in the meeting to offer a new proposal for a deal in order to extend the talks.
But against Bush's history of pulling back from negotiating decisions under
Cheney's influence, 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.
(Inter Press Service)