Condi's Play

After six years of the Bush administration often resisting calls for pragmatism and compromise from allies and home-grown foreign policy realists alike, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's dramatic announcement Wednesday that the United States would agree to join European-led talks with Iran if Tehran would suspend its uranium enrichment had the power of shock and awe -- if perhaps as short a half-life.

The day after Rice's stunning announcement, sophisticated Iran watchers wonder if Washington and Tehran will ever get to the same negotiating table, or if hardliners have so realigned the decision-making environments in the two countries that they are set on a course towards eventual confrontation that has only just experienced an interesting speed bump.

As the diplomatic dust settles and Rice and top U.S. nuclear negotiator Nick Burns huddle for talks with their foreign counterparts at the IAEA in Vienna, one thing is sure: Not even the American diplomats who secretly hatched the announcement can guess the ultimate reaction from Iran to the bold public move yesterday to offer to come to the table on terms that Tehran may not be willing to accept.

“I don't think the Iranians are going to accept this,” says Kenneth Katzman, an Iran expert at the Congressional Research Service. “ The U.S. didn't offer any concrete concessions. All the U.S. said is we would come to the table. We didn't say what we would do at the table. There's not enough in it for Iran.”

Former Iranian deputy foreign minister Abbas Maleki, currently a fellow at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Security, expressed dismay that Rice's offer to join nuclear talks also included comments about alleged Iranian support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iranian interference in Iraq. "If she [Rice] had explicitly referred only to the nuclear issue, than maybe Iran should agree to talk," he said in an interview in Washington Thursday. "But she combined it with Lebanon, Iraq, terrorism," he added, saying those issues impinge on Iran's sovereignty.

“I know very few people who think the Iranians are ever going to be interested in the U.S. offer, no matter how we structure it,” says Patrick Clawson, a longtime Iran specialist and deputy director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The Iranians are so self-confident, and the attitude of much of the leadership is that [uranium enrichment] has become a prestige issue for them. I don't see any sign that they would be interested in negotiations at the moment.”

Whatever skepticism about whether the U.S. move was enough to entice Iran to accept, one thing did become immediately apparent in the wake of Rice's offer. Far from being interpreted internationally as a sign of weakness, the U.S. move seemed to have the immediate effect of strengthening the U.S. position, particularly amongst international allies, including U.N. Security Council members Russia and China.

“I was surprised at the extent to which the reporting missed that the carrot took 30 seconds to agree to once we had agreement about the stick,” said Clawson. “The problem is getting the Europeans and the Russians on board about the stick. Once we got that, the Bush administration did not even have to blink its eye” about agreeing to come to the table.

Inside the U.S. government, one could detect Thursday a palpable sense of new energy being breathed into the diplomatic option, however uncertain the outcome or the Iranian response.

“I wasn't here in the run-up to the Iraq War,” says an administration official who declined to be named. “But some of my colleagues who were have said it [the recent Iran track] has been déjà vu all over again. Something had to be done. And so [Rice] did it. And she had a lot of help; there have been some powerful voices in Washington making this case. She is sticking her neck out a little bit, trying to push this through, and leaving it up to the Iranians to do the right thing.”

The mood there in the wake of Rice's announcement Wednesday, he described, was “subtly dramatic.”

“Iran should know if there is success on the nuclear front, all else is possible,” he continued. “Rapprochement is too early to talk about, but it would serve the area well, lower tensions worldwide, and Iran knows that and is interested in preserving that position,” he added.

Iranian-Americans had mixed reactions, with anti-regime activists mostly expressing disappointment and the fear that Washington might ultimately consider offering the brutal Tehran regime a security guarantee in exchange for Tehran's commitment to halt its nuclear program. Those Iranian-Americans who have advocated for engagement express a different fear: that the U.S. maneuver would be rejected by Iran and only consolidate international consensus for future sanctions against it.

“Secretary Rice's announcement … is a step in the right direction,” said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, a grass-roots group that supports U.S. engagement with Iran, in a public statement Wednesday. “But we're concerned that the precondition she set -- as agreeable as it may be -- may become an insurmountable obstacle to long-overdue negotiations.”

Regime opponents argue that if talks are necessary, Washington should demand human-rights preconditions before coming to the table. The United States should demand that Iran agree to open up an office of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Tehran, suggests Washington-based Iranian human rights activist Manouchehr Ganji, who helped negotiate a similar deal back at the twilight of the Shah's regime.

“The present regime of Iran has made an assessment,” says prominent Iranian dissident Mohsen Sazegara, currently residing in Connecticut. “They think they have succeeded to oppress all of the internal opposition and … they think if they can get a [security] guarantee from the U.S., that they can last for years.”

“They want a green light” for their continued human-rights violations, Sazegara continued.

But what Iranian anti-regime activists may not fully realize, the administration official said, is how quickly the United States was exhausting diplomatic options and drifting toward possible military confrontation -- and a potentially far graver security situation for most Iranians.

“The biggest human-rights issue of all is to avoid confrontation,” he said.

Laura Rozen is a senior correspondent for the Prospect.

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