Friday, August 25, 2006

In Muted Response to Iran, U.S. and Allies Seek Edge

Helene Cooper, The New York Times:
After demanding for three months that Iran suspend its uranium enrichment or face penalties, the formal reaction from the United States and its European allies to Iran’s refusal to suspend uranium enrichment has been decidedly low-key.

It is all about a public relations strategy intended to make the West appear patient and measured in dealing with the issue, United States and European diplomats say. READ MORE

After receiving Iran’s response on Tuesday to a proposal to curb the country’s nuclear program, Bush administration officials had a series of telephone calls with European counterparts to discuss where to go from there.

Everyone agreed that Iran had not met the most crucial requirement: that it suspend uranium enrichment. Everyone agreed that sanctions were the next step. But disagreement on just how to get to that step reflected a familiar division: between the State Department and America’s European allies on one side, and hard-liners in the Bush administration, particularly in Vice President Dick Cheney’s office, on the other side, according to officials involved in the discussions.

Officials representing the vice president, including John P. Hannah, a national security aide, argued that by not slamming the Iranian document from the start, the United States was allowing Iran’s response to appear reasonable.

State Department officials, on the other hand, pressed to “keep the temperature down,” as one American put it. They pushed for a concerted media strategy that would help keep Russia and China on board the already fragile coalition trying to rein in Iran’s nuclear ambitions, American and European diplomats recounted. The officials, representing some of the countries most actively engaged in the issue, would only discuss their private strategy if they were not further identified.

“The thinking was, even though we all know the Iranian response doesn’t amount to much, before rejecting it out of hand we should remember that at least two members of the group have a Security Council veto,” one European diplomat said, referring to Russia and China and their historic aversion to penalties. He referred to the strategy as “giving Iran the rope to hang itself.”

The result: on Wednesday, a day after receiving the Iranian response, America, the most hawkish in the coalition of six countries that made the offer, issued a tepid statement — and not through its blunt United Nations ambassador, John R. Bolton, but from a low-profile acting State Department spokesman, Gonzalo Gallegos. While the American statement mentioned the obvious, that Iran’s response “falls short of the uranium suspension condition, it was careful to add: We acknowledge that Iran considers its response as a serious offer, and we will review it.”

Across the Atlantic, the reaction was also muted. In Paris, Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said simply that Iran must stop uranium enrichment before negotiation on its nuclear program could resume. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel echoed, “What we expected is not stated there, namely: ‘We will suspend our uranium enrichment and come to the negotiating table.’ ’’

There were no official mentions of penalties, despite the looming Aug. 31 deadline that the six countries, which also include Britain, have given for Iran to suspend enrichment.

United States and European diplomats say the response so far is part of a calculated public campaign to give the appearance that they are carefully considering Iran’s response, despite the fact that Britain, Germany, France and the United States all agree that it was unsatisfactory.

The four countries still plan to pursue penalties if Iran does not suspend uranium enrichment by the Aug. 31 deadline set by the United Nations Security Council. But, officials from all four countries said, they do not want to appear trigger happy.

The maneuvering highlights the fragile nature of the coalition on Iran that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is trying to keep together. While the United States and its European allies appear to be united in the notion that the next step should be to impose penalties on Iran through the Security Council, Russia and China remain question marks. Neither country likes sanctions in general, and both have been loath to hit Iran in particular, since both have deep economic interests there.

Both Russia and China crossed a diplomatic threshold in July and joined the United States and Europe in seeking a Security Council resolution ordering Iran to freeze some nuclear activities, or face penalties. United States officials said Ms. Rice received assurances in June that Russia would, at a minimum, sign on to a first phase of weak sanctions if Iran refused to suspend uranium enrichment. Those penalties would probably include a ban on travel by Iranian officials and curbs on imports of nuclear-related technology.

But the diplomatic choreography under way demonstrates that Russian and Chinese cooperation is by no means assured, analysts say.

Iran’s nuclear program and its response to the offer from world powers are on the agenda for Friday’s meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Brussels. But that meeting is expected to be dominated by the international effort to come up with a peacekeeping force in Lebanon. European officials said that the foreign ministers were not expected seriously to take up the Iran issue until Sept. 1.

A senior Bush administration official said the group wanted to avoid the criticism leveled at Iran last year for being too quick to turn down a European offer on its nuclear program. “The game is about appearing to be reasonable,” the Bush official said.