Feature

The U.S. softens its stance on Iran

The Bush administration has sent a high-ranking representative to engage in face-to-face negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, marking a sharp reversal of long-standing U.S. policy.

What happened
The Bush administration has sent a high-ranking representative to engage in face-to-face negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, marking a sharp reversal of long-standing U.S. policy. Undersecretary of State William Burns, the State Department’s third in command, joined counterparts from Europe, Russia, and China to press Iran to halt its nuclear initiative. “The point that we’re making,” said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, “is the United States is firmly behind this diplomacy.” Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called America’s decision to participate in the Geneva talks “a step forward.” The U.S. had previously said it would not meet with Iran unless it suspended uranium enrichment.

Negotiators at the meeting last week presented Iran with a “freeze-for-freeze” proposal, in which the international community would refrain from imposing new sanctions if Iran refrains from installing any more uranium-enriching centrifuges. The six-week agreement would be a prelude to more substantive negotiations. In its initial response, Iran reiterated its insistence on continuing to develop nuclear technology and demanded a series of long-term talks.

In another sign of a more flexible U.S. policy, the Bush administration said it was considering opening a low-level diplomatic outpost in Tehran—the first step toward re-establishing formal relations, which were suspended in 1979 during the Iranian hostage crisis.

What the editorials said
Better late than never, said The New York Times. With just half a year left in office, President Bush has finally realized that his policy of bullying and isolating Iran has only made matters worse. While Bush was talking tough and nursing a “dangerous fantasy of bombing away Iran’s nuclear ambitions,” Iran defiantly stepped up its nuclear tests. Europe tried diplomatic overtures, but without U.S. participation, they have carried too little weight to entice Iran.

Now the U.S. should take the next step and establish a permanent diplomatic outpost in Tehran, said The Boston Globe. For the last 30 years, the U.S. has had to rely on intermediaries for information about life in Iran, which has hurt our ability to have an impact. “The State Department needs to have its own people in touch with Iranian politicians, students, journalists, and dissidents.” The current plan is for an “interests section,” rather than a full-fledged embassy, but any presence “could prepare the way for a better future.”

What the columnists said
A better future for Iran’s hard-liners, perhaps, said Stephen F. Hayes in The Weekly Standard. The Bush administration’s sudden loss of will over Iran is deeply troubling. Having declared Iran a member of the “axis of evil,” the administration drew a bright red line: no negotiations unless Iran suspends its nuclear program. In response, Iran began a series of deliberate provocations, even testing missiles capable of reaching Israel and Europe. Instead of standing firm, America buckled and bowed, and now the world is right to wonder if our word means anything.

What’s worse, said Michael Rubin in The Wall Street Journal, this “diplomatic malpractice” is breathing new life into Ahmadinejad’s “failing regime.” While Iran has been pumping billions into a nuclear program it preposterously claims is for peaceful purposes, its economy is collapsing. Inflation is through the roof and workers are striking for unpaid wages. If the bellicose Ahmadinejad wins re-election next year, it will be for exactly one accomplishment: “He has successfully brought Washington to its knees.”

Negotiation is not synonymous with appeasement, said Samantha Power in Time. Wise leaders can engage enemies without rolling over for them. Remember, “anti-engagers” also attacked JFK for talking with Khrushchev, Nixon for going to China, and Reagan for negotiating with Gorbachev. “If the foot-stomping conservatives had been heeded at these critical junctures, they would have prevented negotiations that reduced tension, enhanced cooperation, and may have prevented bloodshed.”

What next?
The world powers that met with Iran in Geneva gave Tehran two weeks to respond to the “freeze-for-freeze” proposal. Iran downplayed the significance of the deadline, but the U.S. suggested that if Iran rejects the plan, it would immediately press for stricter sanctions. “We are in the strongest possible position to demonstrate that if Iran does not act,” Condoleezza Rice said, “then it is time to go back to that track.”

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