Thursday, June 01, 2006

Rice's Reversal On Iran Policy Irks Santorum

Eli Lake, The New York Sun:
Iran's democratic opposition and the key Republican senator who has supported them are alarmed at yesterday's about-turn by Secretary of State Rice on engaging Iran in negotiations over its enrichment of uranium.

In interviews yesterday, a spokesman for two of Iran's student movements as well as the leadership of the country's supporters of a constitutional referendum said they were wary of the offer from Ms. Rice and doubtful the mullahs would accept it. The Tehran regime promptly dismissed the American concession as "propaganda." READ MORE

Yesterday Ms. Rice announced that America was ready to participate in negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program, but only if the mullahs first suspended the enrichment of uranium, the concession to which Iran agreed in 2003 to avoid penalties from the United Nations when it entered negotiations with France, Germany, and Britain over its hitherto undeclared nuclear facilities.

The timing of the announcement yesterday comes after a minor victory for Iranian students who have held demonstrations on campuses throughout the country.

Over the weekend, the University of Tehran and other schools allowed students to vote for the central committees of Tahkim Vahdat, a prominent voice last summer in organizing protests against the imprisonment of a dissident journalist, Akbar Ganji, after barring the votes for nearly a year. In the elections, students overwhelmingly rejected a slate of candidates aligned with the regime, according to a spokesman for the students here, Akbar Atri.

Mr. Atri said yesterday: "What is important to us is the support of the international organizations as well as governments for the people of Iran for their rights. We express our regret for any policy that weakens that sentiment for Iranians that will not support the people of Iran and their struggle for democracy and human rights."

"I believe what the Islamic Republic wants from these negotiations is a promise of security. This means that the United States and others would have to give up even their verbal support for democrats in Iran," he added.

A spokesman for Senator Santorum, a Republican of Pennsylvania, said yesterday, "We're certainly looking at this offer with a raised eyebrow; as with anything, the devil is in the details." Mr. Santorum has sponsored legislation that would commit funds to Iran's student organization and labor unions and has met with Mr. Atri.

A potential rival of Mr. Atri's, Amir Abbas Fakhravar, who is representing students not affiliated with Tahkim Vahdat, said that when he first heard the announcement, "We were very disappointed."

He added: "People from Iran called me and asked what this meant. But when I saw the specific statement and the conditions from Condoleezza Rice, I knew that this would never be accepted by the Islamic Republic. I told my friends in Tehran that this was a response to America's policy being criticized by Europe, China, and Russia."

A spokesman in Los Angeles for the movement of exiles and Iranians still in Iran to support a constitutional referendum in the Islamic Republic, Pooya Dayanim, said, "I think the decision made today by the United States is a smart one. It's going to save everyone a lot of time because the Islamic Republic will not agree to suspend enrichment under any circumstances, and it will take away any excuse from the Chinese and Russians opposing tougher measures against the Islamic regime."

Mr. Dayanim's assessment appears to be accurate so far. An early report from Iran's official news agency described Ms. Rice's offer as "a propaganda move." Ms. Rice stressed in her news conference here that part of the American strategy was to exhaust "the last excuses."

She added: "There have been those who have said, 'Well, if only the negotiations had the potential for the United States to be a part of them, perhaps then Iran would respond.' So now we have a pretty clear path. We have negotiations if Iran is prepared to suspend."

The offer of talks with Iran could be part of a broader game to shore up support from European countries for a sanctions regime, if not a limited bombing campaign, against Iran's nuclear facilities. The demand from America that uranium enrichment must stop before talks begin was the trigger that persuaded International Atomic Energy Agency member states in February to refer Iran's violations of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to the U.N. Security Council.

Since February, America, Britain, and France have failed to persuade the two other veto-wielding members of the council - China and Russia - to accept strong sanctions against Iran.

The policy-making process inside the Bush administration on Iran has been a closely guarded secret, according to administration officials. Only the most senior officials, at the undersecretary level or higher, are participating in the working groups to draw up options, as the White House has feared leaks.

The decision-making process has been kept so restricted that one senior Republican senator and ally of the president called Ms. Rice after her announcement, saying he was not informed ahead of time, according to a congressional staffer.