By Simon Tisdall (THE GUARDIAN, 01/06/06):
The Bush administration’s offer of face-to-face talks with Iran is a step back from the abyss. While hedged in with caveats and conditions, it represents a significant shift in the US position after a quarter of a century of undeclared warfare with Tehran’s post-revolutionary leadership. And after months of fearful speculation about military confrontation, it has brought an almost audible sigh of relief in European and Middle Eastern capitals.Yesterday’s statement by Condoleezza Rice was first and foremost an internal Washington victory. It offered the clearest proof yet of her foreign policy-making ascendancy and of the declining influence of neo-conservative ideology in George Bush’s second term. Ms Rice, who succeeded Colin Powell as US secretary of state last year, has pursued a pragmatic or “realist” line. She has also worked hard to rebuild relationships with traditional allies damaged by past unilateralism.
Ms Rice’s approach increasingly brought her into conflict with the vice-president, Dick Cheney – the dark lord of rightwing Republicanism; and Donald Rumsfeld, the Pentagon tsar whose political infighting skills repeatedly undermined Mr Powell. But both men have lost ground in recent months, largely because of Iraq. They are believed to have opposed an opening to Iran as a “concession” to terrorism and blackmail. So did Israel. Speaking at the White House last week, Ehud Olmert, Israel’s prime minister, warned that Iran’s activities represented an existential threat with which there could be no compromise. But yesterday Ms Rice made it crystal clear who is calling the shots in Washington now.
The wording of her statement also suggested that the administration is listening to its European allies again – a reversal that brought an immediate welcome from Javier Solana, the EU’s foreign policy chief. “We are agreed with our European partners on the essential elements of a package containing both benefits if Iran makes the right choices and the costs if it does not,” Ms Rice said.
But for the first time she openly accepted the force of the argument made publicly by Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, and privately by Britain and France, that the US’s refusal to participate directly in negotiations with Iran on its nuclear programmes was weakening the western position. In its surly way, Russia had sent similar messages. And Mr Bush telephoned Vladimir Putin before the announcement to tell him the US was ready to talk – but wanted Russia’s support if the Iranians refused to play ball.
Ms Rice said she had removed Iran’s “last excuse” for refusing a compromise. And here was another shift. After out-sourcing the problem to others, the US has taken ownership of the issue. From now on, it will lead from the front.
“Washington’s offer could be a major breakthrough for diplomatic negotiations,” said Alex Bigham, an Iran analyst at the Foreign Policy Centre in London. “While the EU had the right package, it was not clear they could deliver without the support of the US. With America on board, the international effort to break the deadlock has the political muscle to make a deal.” Security assurances for Iran could form a crucial part of any accommodation, he added.
The US shift puts the ball squarely back in Iran’s court. In a sense, Ms Rice’s statement was Washington’s response to the open letter written last month by the country’s hardline leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Despite the president’s anti-western and anti-Israeli rhetoric, Iran has repeatedly offered to hold talks with the US. By conceding Iran’s right to civilian nuclear energy and dangling a wide range of incentives, Ms Rice has called Mr Ahmadinejad’s bluff.
If, after serious consideration, Iran formally rejects the offer and the accompanying carrots-and-sticks package to be finalised in Vienna today, the US will be able to say that it has tried its best.
And western nations, plus Russia and China, will almost certainly agree. They will be much more likely to unite behind Washington in seeking coercive UN security council action against Tehran. Ms Rice will have achieved her “coalition of the willing”.
If Iran accepts, then long and difficult negotiations will lie ahead with no guarantee of success. But a third war in the Middle East in almost as many years may have been avoided, at least for now; Iranians will face the prospect of reintegration into the international community after decades of ostracism; and a historic corner will, just possibly, have been turned.