I can tell you exactly how this happened, because it is typical of the way our Secretary of State approaches internal conflict, whether between us and our allies our among the various principals inside the administration. When, say, State and DoD disagree, her impulse is always to find some middle ground, something that will satisfy—at least in large part—both positions. The result of this impulse is twofold. First, it prolongs decision-making, and second, it reduces our policy to some common denominator (high or low as the case may be). That is why after all these years we still have no Iran policy, unless you believe that this is a policy. I do not, I think it’s a gambit. For those who want to talk, she says we’ll talk. For those who don’t want to talk, she says we’ll only talk if the Iranians give up in advance.
Most everyone in this game undoubtedly expects the Iranians to send us to hell, as they have every time we’ve offered them diplomatic carrots in exchange for their surrender of atomic weapons in advance. So the real debate continues. I see one of the wires is carrying an anonymous statement from a faceless senior creature saying that they are all arguing whether they should promise Iran that we will not promote regime change. Now THAT would be a real, honest policy of total appeasement, and the fact of the leak shows that there are real, honest appeasers advocating muscular surrender.
The net effect of this announcement is likely to be further confusion inside Iran (both regime and opposition will wonder what our policy is, neither being able to conceive that we have none).
However, there is an alternative explanation, which I invoke in the interests of intellectual curiosity. It may be that the president is playing out the diplomatic string, just as he did with Saddam, expecting that our enemy will save us from the foolishness of our diplomats and our allies. He may expect, as I do, that this offer will be spat upon by the mullahs. He can then go to the UN and demand serious action, expecting that the Russians and/or the Chinese will gut any serious sanctions. At that point he can say, as he did with Saddam, well I tried all the diplomatic solutions, so now I’m going to get serious.
I have no reason to think that’s in the president’s mind; it’s a hypothetical explanation for a non-policy that has been impossible to parse for six years.