Negotiating with Iran

Last night, Iran’s less than satisfying response to the P5+1’s latest offer on the nuclear standoff was leaked to the press by a European source. Today, the Bush administration leaked the news to both the Times and the AP that William J. Burns, the third ranking State Dept. official, will attend this weekend’s meeting between the EU’s Javier Solana and Iran’s nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili. It’s the highest-level contact between the two countries, but there are a number of caveats:

The officials emphasized that Mr. Burns’s participation was a one-time decision, that he would not meet one-on-one with Mr. Jalili and that he would reiterate the administration’s demand that Iran suspend uranium enrichment.

I’d be curious to know who leaked the story, and what faction in the internal administration wrangling over Iran that Burns belongs to. His Congressional testimony on Iran from just last week (.pdf) is an equal dose of firmness and openness to dialogue, therefore hard to decipher. The Times article frames the decision to send Burns as a response to some background noise coming out of Iran that “. . .led the administration to conclude that there could be more chance of a diplomatic resolution than some Iranian declarations and a battery of missile tests last week suggested.”

But Burns’ presence remains ambiguous, in that it signals what amounts to a reversal in the American position of no discussions without a freeze in Iran’s uranium enrichment program, at the same time that the message he’s being sent to deliver communicates the exact opposite. In combination with last night’s leak, it plays to the court of public opinion to create the perception of an American willingness to negotiate, thereby effectively raising pressure on Iran to come up with somethingsubstantive at the meeting. The question is whether the Iranians will perceive it in the same way.

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