Iran Pivot?

So just how big a deal is the Bush administration’s decision to send third-ranking State Dept. diplomat William Burns to Geneva to sit in on EU-Iran talks on Iran’s nuclear program? In two pieces worth reading (one at Mother Jones, one for the Guardian), Laura Rozen talks to some well-informed folks and concludes that the move is a very strong symbolic signal, but unlikely to be decisive unless it’s followed by flexibility in the American position. To begin with, that means getting the actual negotiation phase started. Here’s a WaPo piece Laura linked to:

The administration has also supported Solana’s concept of a “freeze for a freeze,” a six-week interim period for preliminary talks that blurs the lines between suspension and discussion. Under Solana’s plan, talks could begin as long as the allies halt efforts to increase sanctions and Iran does not expand its nuclear program. Then formal negotiations would begin as soon as Iran suspended enrichment.

Thus, Iran could say it only suspended its program in the midst of talks, while the United States could say talks did not begin until nuclear activities were suspended — allowing both sides to save face.

But it also depends on what our ultimate objectives for negotiations are. Getting the Iranians to freeze their uranium enrichment program during negotiations is one thing. Getting them to renounce it is another. And therein lies the rub. On the former, we’ve got the IAEA and UNSC on our side, since Iran is currently in violation of their Non-Proliferation Treaty obligations. On the latter, though, Iran is well within its rights, assuming it eventually satisfies the IAEA’s oversight requirements. So even if negotiations get off the ground, they’re likely to be a long and difficult process (hence the desire to make sure Iran’s centrifuges aren’t spinning out highly enriched uranium while they go on).

Laura also flags a Guardian piece reporting that the U.S. interests section in Tehran that’s been the subject of rumors recently is set to be rolled out in the next month. Here’s Laura from her blog, War and Piece:

If the latter report is correct, it’s really hard to imagine the US sending diplomats to Iran for the first time in three decades if there is any sort of intention for military action against Iran before Bush leaves office. . . What’s more, at what level must the US and Iran have been having negotiations on this for this to be reported as a fact? More than we know to be happening, I would think. . .

One thing I’ve noticed is that almost all of the reasoning the administration has offered lately regarding Iran has revolved around the idea that there are weaknesses and vulnerabilities in the Iranian position, and that diplomacy might be the best way to exploit them. Sanctions seem to be taking their toll,there are mixed signals (read: signs of internal divisions) coming out of Tehran, etc. It’s a curious way to approach diplomacy, since the guiding logic is still very clearly the desire to undermine the Iranian regime with which we’ll ostensibly be engaging. But it seems to have John Bolton bent out of shape, so it can’t be all bad.