Politics & Policy

Cover Story

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced Wednesday morning that the United States is willing to join Europe in holding direct talks with Iran on its nuclear program if Iran first suspends uranium enrichment and reprocessing. This new tack, which represents a significant shift in U.S. foreign policy, would be justified if it stood a decent chance of convincing the mullahs to dismantle their nuclear program. But the reality is that we have probably given up more than we have gained.

Consider the best-case scenario: Iran agrees to suspend enrichment and reprocessing, which in turn delays its construction of an atomic bomb. That puts us where we were roughly six months ago. Two years of European negotiations with Iran had extracted no concessions, and had succeeded only in giving the impression that the West lacked the resolve to confront the mullahs seriously. What reason is there to think the West is more resolute now?

The U.S. offer comes just when Iran’s resumption of uranium enrichment, along with the U.N. Security Council’s taking up the issue, was forcing Europe, Russia, and China finally to decide whether they would back coercive measures against the regime. There is no guarantee that they would have proved to be vertebrates, but the march of events would at least have cleared the way for action by those who are.

Instead, the U.S. overture to Iran has given the Security Council the cover it needed to flinch. Further negotiations would postpone indefinitely the enactment of targeted sanctions against the regime, a tactic that the Bush administration had recently discussed with its allies. They would reinforce the mullahs’ perception that the West, for all its bluster, is unwilling to do anything but talk. And they would distract attention from the only question that matters–Will the mullahs renounce forever their nuclear aims?–to the intermediate question of whether uranium is currently being enriched and reprocessed. If Iran’s rulers accept our conditions and temporarily suspend those activities, they do so knowing that the Security Council referral was a bluff, leading as it did to more talks. Why will they be more willing to make concessions now–particularly when the U.S. offer was coupled with no statement, from either Europe or the U.S., on the inevitability of punitive action should the talks fail?

What encouraged one about the U.S. position since the Security Council referral was its apparent acknowledgment that the fundamental problem with Iran’s nuclear program is Iran’s regime. By insisting that the Security Council take up the matter, the Bush administration had tacitly declared that the EU-3’s tactic of negotiations, negotiations, and more negotiations had failed. Moreover, it seemed to have recognized that the reason for this failure is inseparable from the nature of the regime: that the mullahs’ religious zealotry clouds their strategic calculus and causes them to respond unpredictably to incentives and threats. Everything since 1979–and everything in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s millenarian rhetoric, which evinces not the slightest concern for self-preservation–supports that conclusion. And yet we now seem to entertain the idea that meetings around a conference table can persuade Islamists to play nice.

Perhaps the best thing to be said about the announcement is that it proves America’s willingness to go the extra mile in avoiding the use of force, and thereby affords an incremental measure of diplomatic cover should the use of force prove necessary. If this offer is the prelude to a decisive confrontation, so be it. Otherwise, we have made a mistake.

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