Why the fluffy Rice plan on Iran is about getting Europe to act tough

By Gerard Baker (THE TIMES, 02/06/06):

For weeks the US has been resisting pressure from Europeans and a growing chorus of foreign policy experts at home to break a 27-year-old embargo on direct negotiations with Iran. Though there have been abortive unofficial contacts (who can forget Oliver North with the birthday cake, the Bible and the US hostages in Lebanon?), Washington has officially disdained to talk to the mullahs since revolutionary students seized the US Embassy in Tehran shortly after the Shah was toppled in 1979.

But with negotiations apparently stalled between Iran and the EU Three (UK, France and Germany) over the developing Iranian nuclear programme, the pressure has been rising on the US to get involved. Until now the response has been negative. At best, the Bush people said, treating with the theocrats, with their visions of an Israel-free world and their transfiguration fantasies, would be pointless. At worst, sitting down over sweet tea and pistachios would give the Iranian leadership prestige and valuable time to move closer to their nuclear dream. It would change the subject in the Middle East in a disastrous way, fetishising the diplomatic process, elevating it above the real problem: Iranian nuclear ambitions and the threat they pose to the world.

In fact these unequivocal official renunciations of dialogue masked an increasingly intense debate in Washington and on Wednesday Dr Rice signalled that her diplomatic instincts had once again triumphed. The US, with the EU and, if possible, Russia and China, would join multiparty discussions with the Iranians to try to find ways to break the impasse.

A delicately worded statement included some important concessions to the anti-engagers in the Administration; there would be negotiations only if Iran stopped enriching uranium and was willing to abide by internationally agreed constraints on its nuclear regime.

Iran has already suggested these conditions are too onerous so negotiations may never actually start. But that won’t matter much because the symbolism of Dr Rice’s gambit was more important than the substance. The State Department is now into the most critical phase yet of a delicate and high-risk game. It is a game that some in Washington feel is destined to fail; but, for the time being at least, the President has ruled that it is the game that the US will play.

Few people in Washington believe Iran is going to abandon its attempts to join the nuclear club without serious international pressure or even the deeply unattractive military option. The only hope of avoiding the apocalyptic choice is a regime of eye-wateringly tight international economic and diplomatic pressure. But to achieve that the US has to be seen to be working overtime on the diplomacy.

By a tragic combination of hubris on America’s part and hysteria on the rest of the world’s, the Iraq war has undermined America’s ability to make its case. The world looks at Washington through the prism of a distorting media and sees a bunch of war-crazed neocons intent on torching the Islamic world. It notes the grisly carnage in al-Haditha and the mayhem in Basra and claims vindication.

With Iran, the US has to succeed where it largely failed in Iraq, in demonstrating to a sceptical world that the US really wants to give diplomacy a chance to work, and to ensure that if (and when) it fails, it will not be the US that will be responsible. The argument at the State Department is that, having thus demonstrated its bona fides the US will be able to persuade the rest of the world to get tough with the Iranians.

This is the second time now in 18 months that the hardliners in the Bush team have been worsted by Dr Rice’s diplomacy. In November 2004 the US changed course and chose for the first time to endorse the EU negotiations with Iran. The argument then was that if it stood aside while the Europeans negotiated, those efforts would be doomed. Everyone would say it was the brooding absence of the US that prevented the desirable outcome of a disarmed Iran. But with the US backing the initiative, it could not be blamed if they failed. The world would see that it was Iranian intransigence not American unilateralism that was precipitating the crisis.

Now here we are a year and a half later, with almost exactly the same arguments being rehearsed in Washington. The US now envisages a two-stage process over the next few months: first the renewed diplomatic effort to give one last push to the attempt to get UN sanctions imposed on Iran — if China and Russia can be persuaded to drop their opposition.

If that fails (and there is little optimism in Washington that it will succeed) the US then tries the second track: a coalition of the willing for sanctions outside the UN, including the EU, Japan, Australia and perhaps others.

These would be harsh measures, not popular in the countries that the US hopes to enlist. They would doubtless result in much higher oil prices, and they would harm the economies of Europe much more than that of the US (since America already has sanctions in place, it would not be seriously affected). To do that, the rest of the world, Europeans especially, will have to be convinced that Iran is a bigger threat to world peace than the US.

That is the thrust of the Rice gambit: go the extra mile, two miles, three miles for diplomacy, so that the case for tougher measures is more easily made. But the gambit’s weakness is that it rests on an assumption that, in the end, when Iranian intransigence has been duly demonstrated, Europe will be willing to make the sacrifice necessary to halt the doomsday threat from a nuclear-armed Islamist state.

Who, looking at the performance of Europe in the last few years, would want to bet on that?.