Thursday, October 06, 2005

U.S. Policy Makers Weigh Options For Handling Iran

Carla Anne Robbins, The Wall Street Journal:
With President Bush's top advisers set to discuss U.S. policy toward Iran today, the State Department has circulated a briefing paper that proposes significantly expanding U.S. diplomatic contacts with Tehran's new hard-line government.

The idea is part of a list of incentives and punishments that U.S. officials are outlining as they consider ways to block Tehran's nuclear ambitions and encourage internal political change there, U.S. officials said. READ MORE

In preparation for today's White House meeting, the Treasury Department has prepared its own paper laying out the limited menu of economic pressures the U.S. -- which already bans most trade with Iran -- could impose if Tehran refuses to halt sensitive nuclear activities and return to negotiations with the Europeans.

A U.S. official said the main focus of today's meeting will be on democratization efforts in Iran. And the State Department paper lays out several more predictable steps, including starting Farsi-language television broadcasts into Tehran; increasing funding for nongovernmental organizations that promote democracy in Iran; and establishing a U.S. public diplomacy office in the Gulf region focused on Iran.

In the most contentious idea, the paper also suggests that the U.S. might consider more direct diplomatic contacts with the Iranian government to test its willingness to change its behavior.

According to an official who has read the paper, those could entail a quiet approach to representatives of supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. More ambitiously, Washington could propose opening up a small "interests section" in Tehran staffed by U.S. consular officers.

Since the 1979 hostage crisis, the U.S. has had no representation in Iran, and the Swiss have managed all legal and consular issues. The Bush administration had quiet but regular diplomatic contacts with Tehran following Sept. 11, 2001. It halted the dialogue in mid-2003 over differences over Iraq and Tehran's handling of al Qaeda prisoners.

U.S. officials said they have no illusions about Iran's new conservative and defiant president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And they say they have little hope that Tehran would respond positively to any U.S. overture. Indeed, several officials suggested that a rejection by Tehran would have the dual benefit of burnishing Washington's reputation with the Iranian public and the Europeans.

It isn't clear whether Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is prepared to press any of the paper's proposals in today's meeting. But the fact that it has been circulated among members of the so-called Deputies Committee -- the second tier of policy makers -- has already given its ideas some implicit endorsement.

The department's willingness to even raise the idea of increased diplomatic contacts with Iran -- a government considered anathema by the White House -- is also a sign of Ms. Rice's power and confidence. After sitting on the sidelines for most of the first term as hard-liners and moderates battled over both Iran and North Korea policy, she is now taking the lead on the two issues.

U.S. officials insist their best hope for pressuring Tehran still lies with the Europeans and eventually Russia and China.

While the U.S. and Europe have focused much of their efforts in recent weeks on bringing Iran before the Security Council, U.S. officials privately admit that such a move would be mainly symbolic. Moscow, which is the main supplier of Iran's civilian nuclear program, would almost certainly veto any sanctions.

Instead, the U.S. is hoping to persuade the Europeans, who have extensive diplomatic and economic ties to Iran, to impose their own punishments if Iran presses forward with its nuclear efforts.

Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns will meet with representatives of the European Union 3 -- Britain, France and Germany -- in Brussels next week and is expected to begin discussing ways to ratchet up the pressure on Tehran.

While the Europeans have resisted the idea of imposing their own sanctions, some diplomats acknowledge that Iran may bring the punishment down on itself.

In August Iran pulled out of negotiations with the Europeans and resumed uranium conversion, a first step toward producing nuclear fuel for power reactors or a weapon. Mr. Ahmadinejad further alienated the Europeans with a highly confrontational speech to the United Nations General Assembly. Iran has since warned that it could take the next critical step and begin enriching uranium if its case is referred to the Security Council.