Signals From Tehran

By David Ignatius (THE WASHINGTON POST, 23/02/07):

The title of the two-page Iranian document is “Gentlemen’s Agreement.” In convoluted English, it lists 11 points of understanding supposedly reached in September between Iranian negotiator Ali Larijani and his European counterpart, Javier Solana, on a temporary, partial, not-quite suspension of uranium enrichment.

What’s interesting isn’t the purported agreement — Solana’s spokeswoman, Cristina Gallach, insists there wasn’t one — but the fact that the Iranians are circulating the document and signaling through various channels that they want to restart dialogue. Indeed, when Larijani met Solana in Munich this month, “he expressed the willingness to resume talks to prepare final negotiations,” according to a source close to Solana.

“We’re getting pinged all over the world by Iranians wanting to talk to us,” Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns said in an interview yesterday. The problem, says Burns, is that the Iranians haven’t yet said the “magic word,” which is that they will actually suspend enrichment in exchange for the suspension of U.N. sanctions.

With Iran still publicly defying the United Nations over its nuclear program, the United States and its allies agreed yesterday to tighten the pressure another notch by preparing a second U.N. Security Council resolution with additional sanctions. Burns said Russia and China agreed to back the new resolution in a meeting yesterday with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. “It may not be substantially stronger, but it will be stronger,” said Burns, who will travel to London on Monday to negotiate the details of the new resolution.

U.S. and European officials think Iran’s new interest in negotiations is a sign that pressure on Tehran is working. The campaign includes the initial U.N. sanctions resolution, which shook the Iranians because it was backed by Russia and China; tough U.S. banking sanctions, accompanied by a successful Treasury Department push to dissuade European and Japanese banks from lending to Iran; and calculated muscle-flexing by the Bush administration, which has sent an additional aircraft carrier task force to the Persian Gulf and seized Iranian operatives inside Iraq.

“We are hopeful that all these pressure points will influence the internal debate in Iran,” says Burns. And they appear to be doing just that.

The multipronged squeeze on Tehran surprised President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other Iranian officials, who seemed confident when I visited the country in September that they were in the driver’s seat and that it was the United States that was weakened and isolated. “We knocked them off stride and put them on the defensive,” argues Burns. A British official who follows the issue closely agrees: “The Iranians have moved from cockiness to division and nervousness.”

Western officials see various signs of an altered political balance in Tehran: public criticism of Ahmadinejad’s management of the economy by former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani; a letter challenging the president’s economic policy signed by 150 members of the Iranian parliament; criticism of Ahmadinejad’s handling of the nuclear issue by former members of the Iranian negotiating team and by a hard-line newspaper; and now new signals from Larijani and others that Iran wants to resume the preliminary negotiations it broke off last year.

“The financial sanctions have had a real impact,” says the British official. “They lead to a general insecurity about economic viability.”

So does all this mean it’s time to go back to the bargaining table? Not yet, say a number of U.S. and European officials. They insist that the Iranians must stop haggling and agree to quit enriching uranium. Russian officials told me in Moscow last week that President Vladimir Putin passed the message to a top Iranian emissary this month that Tehran must agree to a “timeout” in enriching uranium if it wants to settle the nuclear issue.

The Iranians continue to dicker, in what Western officials regard as a tactical ploy to get out of trouble. Their efforts center on paragraph eight of the “Gentlemen’s Agreement” their officials have been circulating. That part of the document proposes that if U.N. sanctions are lifted, Iran would agree to a two-month period “during which Iran in a voluntary and non-binding and temporary move avoids installation of next cascades” for enrichment. In other words, the Iranians wouldn’t add additional centrifuges that would allow industrial-scale enrichment but would continue spinning their modest initial cascade of centrifuges.

No deal, say U.S. and European officials. The only way the Iranians can escape sanctions is to suspend enrichment and sit down at the table. If they do so, an array of goodies awaits. Meanwhile, the strategy of confrontation continues, and U.S. and European officials — who haven’t had much to cheer about recently — seem confident that it’s working.