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Posted by on Jun 1, 2006 in At TMV | 6 comments

US Shifts To Containment Strategy On Iran

For weeks the war clouds seemed to be gathering. The bellicose comments — seemingly matched tit for tat — came from both sides.

Tehran? It seemed to be sticking its tongue out at the United States, virtually defying it to act. Washington? Sources (unofficial and otherwise) seemed to issuing dire warnings about military action, even as official statements insisted diplomacy was the first chance.

But now Washington has seemingly shifted gears to a policy familiar to Americans during the Cold War: containment versus military confrontation. The Christian Science Monitor reports:

After weeks of debate inside the Bush administration, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced Wednesday that the United States is ready to join direct talks with Iran – if Iran first suspends its uranium-enrichment activities.

Saying the decision “gives the negotiation track new energy,” Dr. Rice characterized the redirection of US policy as President Bush’s determination “to do everything we can to find a diplomatic solution to the nuclear problem.”

In terms of international imagery alone, it’s a wise step. The Bush administration has increasingly been portrayed as an administration that seemingly couldn’t wait to leap into military action. And there have been predictions in some political quarters that some kind of military action by the U.S. was bound to happen right before the 2006 mid-term elections. MORE:

The announcement came on the eve of Rice’s trip to Europe to nail down details of an international carrots-and-sticks approach to Iran. It appeared designed to send several key signals:

• That Iran is not Iraq, and that the US is determined to exhaust diplomatic measures to resolve the standoff.

• That the US will take tough, controversial steps to form a common front with its European allies.

• That the US expects reciprocal tough steps from other key international players involved in the tussle – specifically Russia and China – if Iran fails to suspend the uranium-enrichment and reprocessing elements of its nuclear program.

Even so, Iran has not welcomed Rice’s proposal with outstretched arms:

The official Iranian news agency said Wednesday the U.S. offer to join in direct talks with Iran about its disputed nuclear program was “a propaganda move.”

The American proposal, a major policy shift after decades without official public contact between the two countries, was made conditional on Iran agreeing to stop its uranium enrichment activities.

“It’s evident that the Islamic Republic of Iran only accepts proposals and conditions that meet the interests of the nation and the country. Halting enrichment definitely doesn’t meet such interests,” IRNA said at the end of a dispatch reporting the offer of talks by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

“Given the insistence by Iranian authorities on continuing uranium enrichment, Rice’s comments can be considered a propaganda move,” IRNA said.

Earlier, an Iranian lawmaker was quoted as saying any direct talks with the United States over Tehran’s nuclear program must be held without preconditions.

Kazem Jalali, spokesman for the Foreign Policy and National Security Committee, said the U.S. move might be viewed positively in Tehran if preconditions were dropped, according to the Student News Agency.

“The U.S. offer for talks can be considered positive but the precondition set by the U.S. is not appropriate,” Jalali was quoted as saying. He does not speak for the government.

“The Islamic Republic has announced repeatedly that suspension of uranium enrichment is not in Iran’s agenda,” Jalali said.

But IS it total rejection (yet)? This could be akin to a bargaining in a bazaar. To be sure, Bush didn’t have many good choices on this issue, as the New York Times notes:

After 27 years in which the United States has refused substantive talks with Iran, President Bush reversed course on Wednesday because it was made clear to him — by his allies, by the Russians, by the Chinese, and eventually by some of his advisers — that he no longer had a choice.

During the past month, according to European officials and some current and former members of the Bush administration, it became obvious to Mr. Bush that he could not hope to hold together a fractious coalition of nations to enforce sanctions — or consider military strikes on Iranian nuclear sites — unless he first showed a willingness to engage Iran’s leadership directly over its nuclear program and exhaust every nonmilitary option.

Few of his aides expect that Iran’s leaders will meet Mr. Bush’s main condition: that Iran first re-suspend all of its nuclear activities, including shutting down every centrifuge that could add to its small stockpile of enriched uranium. Administration officials characterized their offer as a test of whether the Iranians want engagement with the West more than they want the option to build a nuclear bomb some day.

And while the Europeans and the Japanese said they were elated by Mr. Bush’s turnaround, some participants in the drawn-out nuclear drama questioned whether this was an offer intended to fail, devised to show the extent of Iran’s intransigence.

Still, it does seem to be a beginning. And if imagery determines support, Bush & Co. won’t be hurt by showing that they’ve offered to yield a bit on their previous position on Iran, if Iran is willing to yield — which it doesn’t appear it’s willing to do (yet).

There may be domestic political realities for Mr. Bush, too. Aside from the U.S. military being stretched thin, Bush’s support has not risen notably in recent months. Unless there was some kind of a surprise, lightning military operation, even if was a limited one Bush would have trouble garnering widespread public support.

According to the Washington Post, the new Bush approach has the support of some other nations and various experts:

A senior administration official said there is substantial agreement from Russia and China — two nations that have resisted sanctions against Iran — on an escalating series of U.N. penalties that would be imposed if Iran does not comply. He said negotiators are expected to finalize a package that includes potential sanctions for noncompliance, as well as benefits if Iran accepts a deal being crafted by several nations during a meeting in Vienna today. Rice left for the meeting shortly after her announcement.

The Bush administration previously refused to engage in direct talks with Iran on its nuclear program, preferring to let three European Union nations — Britain, France and Germany, known as the E.U.-3 — conduct negotiations. But Germany lately has increasingly urged Washington to deal with Tehran directly, as have a growing roster of foreign policy experts and at least two U.S. senators.

So Rice’s announcement can’t be painted as another “Lone Ranger” Washington policy stance, but one that does have some substantial back-up elswhere. But will this translate into clout that Tehran will acknowledge or actually feel? The Financial Times explains the political dynamics:

Whether the Iranian regime will agree to the US conditions – to suspend all enrichment and reprocessing before any talks can take place – is still uncertain. Tehran may well demand further reassurances from Washington that forcible “regime change” is not the US policy. But for the first time in many months, Ms Rice’s initiative puts Tehran on the back foot.

European diplomats recognise that it has been a difficult political decision for the Bush administration, in the face of strenuous opposition in the US Congress to any contact with the Iranian government. Yet in recent weeks, leading Republican figures including Senator John McCain and Senator Chuck Hagel had spoken out publicly in favour of such a move.

For its part, Iran has tried to have it both ways. On the one hand, Iranian officials point to their national insecurity, with nuclear powers surrounding them in Russia, Pakistan and Israel, as well as the US in Iraq, Afghanistan and Turkey. “Which country apart from Canada has the US on every border?” a diplomat jokes. “Iran, of course.”

On the other hand, Tehran has been confident that the US would not win the support of Russia and China for any harsh regime of sanctions. Iran has been winning the public relations battle for the support of many leading developing countries, such as South Africa and Brazil, for its right to develop its own nuclear power industry. And it knows that in both Iraq and Afghanistan, where US forces are seeking to control growing insurgency, a word from Tehran could make matters far worse, by widening the conflict to include Iran’s own allies.

In another article, the Washington Post explores Rice’s important role in this policy change:

Now, in perhaps the biggest foreign policy shift of his presidency, Bush has approved the idea of sitting down at the table with the Iranian government — one headed by a former student radical who denies the Holocaust. Attached to the U.S. offer was a stern condition: a verified suspension of Iran’s nuclear enrichment operations. But the offer overturned a long-standing taboo, and it came from an administration stocked with officials who have made little secret of their desire to overthrow the government in Tehran.

The administration made this move at a moment of weakness. The president’s public opinion ratings are among the lowest ever recorded for a modern president, and oil prices have reached record levels, in part because of the confrontation with Iran. The high price of oil, in turn, has enriched the Iranian treasury.

Iran recently announced it had learned how to achieve a key aspect of enriching uranium — sooner than expected — raising the stakes in the confrontation. Even so, the lingering fallout from the administration’s decision to attack Iraq has made it increasingly difficult to win the support for sanctions on Iran from critical nations such as Russia and China.

A key factor in Bush’s decision yesterday is the influence of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who announced the offer in a televised news conference. Since becoming secretary of state last year, Rice has worked assiduously to make certain that the United States does not maneuver itself into becoming the world’s enemy No. 1, as it did on the Iraq war.

The bottom line: no matter what Tehran decides to do, the dynamics have changed — and the ball is now in its court. And Rice’s influence on U.S. foreign policy is coming into sharper focus.