Shift in Iran Strategy Shows Lack of Options
Helene Cooper and Elaine Sciolino, The New York Times:
After intense talks about Iran's nuclear program, the United States and other major world powers face two unappealing choices as the UN General Assembly opens this week: introduce a resolution in the Security Council for sanctions against Tehran that may not be tough enough to make a difference, or delay any punitive measures, rendering their diplomacy on Iran meaningless.
So the Bush administration, along with Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany, have quietly shifted their strategy. READ MORE
In June, the six global powers offered Iran a take-it-or-leave-it package of incentives in an effort to persuade the country to abandon its nuclear ambitions. No negotiations would start unless Iran first froze its uranium enrichment activities.
Now the six countries have offered a major concession. They are embarking on a two-track approach that allows the European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, to conduct open-ended negotiations with Iran's chief negotiator, Ali Larijani, on the conditions for a suspension while the Security Council weighs punitive measures.
"I think there's a chance that Iran sees it has to move," a European diplomat said Friday. "We want to get those people to the table. The key thing here is to leave the door open."
In diplomatic terms, the embrace of what is being called the practical, two- track approach looks like a subtle change.
But in reality it is a fundamental shift and an admission of how few options are available to President George W. Bush and his European allies.
In the autumn of 2003, the United States was raising pressure on its allies to refer Iran to the Security Council for sanctions.
But with Russia and China threatening vetoes, Britain, France and Germany worked out a deal with Iran: no referral of its nuclear program to the Security Council if Tehran suspended uranium enrichment, the first step in making fuel for nuclear power or for a weapon.
A lot has happened since then, but one thing is the same: Iran is still enriching uranium.
The Bush administration is again ready to push forward on a sanctions package at the United Nations, but it is doubtful that the United States and Europe will get Russia and China to sign on to anything but relatively mild sanctions, at least at first.
Many analysts said they believed that Iran could withstand most of the measures under consideration, which include a travel ban against Iranian officials working in the nuclear program and restrictions on the sale of nuclear components to Tehran.
If Europe and Washington insist on tougher sanctions, Russia and China might balk, and the coalition - fragile, but a conduit for pressure nonetheless - could fall apart.
That is why, despite the expiration of the Aug. 31 deadline for Iran to suspend enrichment or face sanctions, the United States and Europe remain willing to keep talking.
Or rather, the United States remains willing to speak through Europe.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pushed Bush to offer to end Washington's nearly three-decades-long policy against direct talks with Iran if it suspended uranium enrichment.
Iran has been seeking direct talks on any subject, seeking recognition of its growing regional influence and validation from its longstanding opponent.
But even though the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is also scheduled to be in New York for the General Assembly, Bush has dismissed the possibility of the two meeting.
At a news conference on Friday, he said: "I have made it clear to the Iranian regime that we will sit down with the Iranians once they verifiably suspend their enrichment program. I meant what I said."
Nor will Rice or R. Nicholas Burns, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, meet with Larijani, American officials said.
But, they said, administration officials will certainly be monitoring the Larijani-Solana talks.
Foreign ministers from the six countries are planning to meet to discuss Iran on Tuesday or Wednesday.
European and American diplomats, who spoke on condition of anonymity according to normal diplomatic protocol, are still trying to determine whether Iran is serious about an offer they say Larijani made to suspend uranium enrichment for two months.
The diplomats said that Larijani had made the same overture several times, only to take it back, leaving the impression that he did not have the full authority to negotiate and that Iran's leadership was divided on nuclear strategy.
The Iranians' 20-page response to the European Union on the proffered incentives - rambling and imprecise - strongly suggested that there are differing camps within Iran.
Indeed, in remarks to reporters on Friday, Solana acknowledged that there were divisions in Tehran, which he said were the reason he did not meet with Larijani at the end of last week.
"A little bit more time was needed in order to reach a consensus in his own country among his own leadership" to "convey to me a possible positive answer," Solana said.
The European foreign policy chief's inclination to continue talking, meanwhile, has frustrated the Bush administration.
"Larijani and Solana have been engaged in this minuet," a senior Bush administration official said. "The U.S. view is that those talks are worthwhile, but not sufficient. We will be moving early in the week to move forward on a sanctions resolution."
If Iran does go ahead with the offer, it is one that the United States and Europe should not refuse, said Robert Einhorn, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the former assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation under President Bill Clinton.
"If the Europeans and Iranians can cobble together even a limited-duration suspension, we could dodge another bullet, at least for a while," Einhorn said.
But he added: "It's not at all clear we're going to get to that point. Even their initial offer had a lot of provisos."
Some analysts said that neither the international pressure on Tehran nor Iran's enrichment program is very likely to end soon.
"Next year," said George Perkovich, a nonproliferation expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, "we're going to be at the same spot still."
Elaine Sciolino reported from Paris.