For the past 30 years, the United States and Iran have been out of sync: When one side was ready for comprehensive negotiations, the other was not.
Now the Obama administration has asked the Islamic Republic to meet and clarify a vague proposal for talks that Iran made last week. In doing so, the United States is calling Iran’s bluff at a difficult and delicate moment in that country’s political evolution.
The proposal said Iran was prepared to “enter into a dialogue on negotiations in order to lay the ground for lasting peace” with the U.S. and five other world powers, but made no mention of U.S. and U.N. demands that it suspend a uranium-enrichment program that could give it the capacity to make nuclear weapons. On Saturday, however, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki told Iranian state television, “Should the conditions be ripe, there is a possibility of talks about the nuclear issue with the West, given the new package we have presented.”
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the focus would be the nuclear program. “This may not have been a topic that they wanted to be brought up, but I can assure you that it’s a topic that we’ll bring up,” he told reporters on Air Force One, Reuters news agency reported.
The U.S. decision to agree to meet with Iran without preconditions implements President Obama’s campaign pledge to exhaust diplomatic efforts before resorting to new sanctions or military force.
Already, Mr. Obama has sent Persian New Year’s greetings to Iran’s people and government and two letters to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. All of this took place, however, before a June 12 presidential election produced the biggest mass protests against the regime since the 1979 Islamic revolution. With at least 36 people killed and more than 100 academics and political figures placed as defendants in show trials, millions of Iranians still believe that opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi won the election, not the official victor, incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Given this backdrop, many Iran specialists are skeptical that the Tehran government is really ready to engage and suspect it is playing for time to complete a nuclear weapons program, stave off more sanctions and bolster its legitimacy before an increasingly disaffected public.
“Iran policy is a conundrum with a capital C,” said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The Obama administration faces the difficult task of reconciling how to deal with a disgraced regime, which presents urgent national security challenges, while at the same time not betraying a popularly driven movement whose success could have enormously positive implications for the United States.”
Beyond curbing nuclear proliferation, Iranian cooperation could help stabilize Iran’s neighbors, Iraq and Afghanistan, making it easier for the Obama administration to cap U.S. troop deployments and nip in the bud a gathering rebellion in U.S. Democratic Party ranks.
However, Mr. Sadjadpour said he doubted that Iran would moderate its policies “as long as Ahmadinejad is president and Khamenei is supreme leader. … I don’t think anyone at the White House is confident about the prospects of a diplomatic breakthrough with Iran.”
In announcing the decision Friday, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said that the U.S. was testing Iran.
“If Iran refuses to negotiate seriously, we - the United States and the international community and the [U.N.] Security Council - can draw conclusions from that,” he said. “And then based on that, we’ll make some judgments in the future.”
Congress is already preparing new sanctions legislation that would cut off Iran’s central bank from U.S. financial markets, pressure companies that sell gasoline to Iran to stop, and bar from U.S. ports international shipping companies that do business with Iran.
Israel, which sees Iran’s nuclear program as an existential threat, is also putting pressure on the Obama administration to limit the time for talks.
“I think the real Israeli concern is how long the negotiation phase will last,” said Avner Cohen, a nuclear specialist at the University of Maryland. “The current understanding is, until the new year.”