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U.S. Diplomacy On Iran 'Important, Sincere' Shift For Bush

Anthony Cordesman

Anthony Cordesman

WASHINGTON -- The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush sent Undersecretary of State William Burns, the country's No. 3 diplomat, to attend the July 19 negotiating session between Europe and Iran in Geneva. The United States also is reportedly considering opening what's called an "interest section" in Tehran.

Burns was merely an observer at the Geneva session, and an interest section lacks the status of an embassy. Further, the meeting ended in a stalemate over Iran's nuclear program. But do these diplomatic initiatives by the United States indicate progress in improved relations between two bitter enemies?

RFE/RL's Andrew F. Tully put this and other questions to Anthony Cordesman, a former intelligence analyst for the U.S. Defense and State departments who now is an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

RFE/RL: Dr. Cordesman, did Burns' presence at the Geneva talks make a difference?

Anthony Cordesman: I think we need to look at the context. It's often said that the United States and Iran do not have a dialogue. They have an official dialogue through the representation of the United States in Iran, which is the Swiss ambassador. They have a dialogue at the United Nations. They have a dialogue at the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] in Vienna. There have been dual-track talks between Americans and Iranians. Certainly these gathered momentum when [Iranian] President [Mohammad] Khatami was in office, and they lost momentum during President [Mahmud] Ahmadinejad. But they never stopped.

What we're seeing, however, now is something very different. Since the first time since [U.S. President George W. Bush's] "axis of evil" speech [in 2002] -- which really brought a halt to the momentum under President Khatami that had gathered in terms of U.S.-Iranian talks over Afghanistan -- we're seeing a level of dialogue which is taking on new momentum.

This meeting in Geneva has occurred after considerable exchanges over the idea of a U.S. representation section , with U.S. personnel actually being present inside Iran. It is precisely that kind of contact which has been the bridge to eventually establishing more formal relations between countries in the past. The visit from Burns to Geneva is just one step in that, and one can't expect dramatic, open exchanges -- not until there's a clear Iranian response, not until the rules really established for both sides as to what level of dialogue and contact is possible.

RFE/RL: So can you judge the extent of progress -- or momentum -- at this point? Was Mr. Burns' presence at the Geneva talks a significant step by Washington, even if there was no immediate breakthrough?

Cordesman: The U.S. is perhaps more ready to move forward at this point than the Iranians are. There've been mixed signals coming out of the office of the supreme leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei]. In the past, the supreme leader has signaled that you can't have this kind of step forward [in relations with the United States] under this [Bush] administration, although this is not really a formal dialogue. So it is at least possible that might be some Iranian willingness to have an interest section rather than an embassy.

But when you put it in context, was the Burns presence important? Yes it was, and it goes beyond simply the U.S. and Iranian relations. What you also see is a much clearer U.S. endorsement of the incentive package that [EU foreign-policy chief Javier] Solana presented the Iranians if they're willing to give up on uranium enrichment. It's a new type of signal in terms of halting Iran's movement toward nuclear weapons. In some ways it's an application of the kind of diplomacy that had success in dealing with North Korea. And it's a signal, too, to our allies in the world that we really are pursuing diplomatic options, that the endless reports about war scares and regime change are largely alarmist and rumors.

RFE/RL: Do these new U.S. diplomatic initiatives represent a natural extension of Bush's insistence that he wants to resolve the Iran nuclear issue diplomatically? Or is the administration succumbing to pressure?

Cordesman: Well, I think it's a shift in U.S. policy. I think it's quite clear that the administration is changing in many ways its diplomatic approaches, particularly toward these last months in office, towards a more pragmatic and practical approach; that the State Department has a higher profile; that the idea of professional diplomacy, mediation, and negotiation is being given more emphasis; that it represents, I think, a very serious concern on the part of the U.S. military that there're enough problems in Iraq and in Afghanistan; that there are signals that need to be sent to the [Persian] Gulf region, to Israel and to Iran about the seriousness of U.S. intentions.

And I think in all of these ways, it is an important shift. But I think it's equally important to note that this is not somehow a shift between black and white. It's a shift in the vector of diplomacy, and [a shift] in the priorities.

RFE/RL: Some analysts have written that making a diplomatic effort may not represent a genuine change of policy in the Bush administration, but a tactical shift to demonstrate to the Europeans that the United States tried to negotiate with the Iranians, while expecting the Iranians to refuse to engage, and using that as a reason to resort to military action. Is this possible?

Cordesman: I think the problem we all have is that we've now had nearly four years of war scares. Anybody who's been out to the Gulf or the [Middle East] region has never been able to go out there without hearing some kind of report that everything we're [the United States] doing is concealing yet another plot to invade Iran, to attack Iran, to go to another war.

It doesn't seem to matter what the president says -- the secretary of defense, the secretary of state or [Joint Chiefs of Staff] Chairman [Michael] Mullen. Almost anything you say that is "no" is interpreted as "yes." And whenever the U.S. talks about diplomatic options, it's seen by some people that's somehow a cover for yet another conspiracy to go to war.

Now, is there a U.S. military option on the table? Yes. But I think for all the reasons Chairman Mullen outlined, this is not the time to attack militarily. Giving diplomacy a chance remains the kind of U.S. policy that's actually being pursued.

RFE/RL: You mentioned the parallels between the current U.S. diplomatic approach to Iran and the talks with North Korea. Do you expect the United States eventually to offer security guarantees to Tehran?

Cordesman: Well, first, it's not clear that Iran has ever sought security guarantees from the United States. In fact, it's officials have repeatedly denied that they're necessary. If the efforts of the United States, its allies, and the UN can really move things forward, then we're going to see a negotiating package which is going to combine incentives and constraints, and almost invariably some kind of new relationship between the United States and Iran.

But until those negotiations move forward; until Iran is actually willing to say that it will place limits on its nuclear enrichment activities; and it will fully accept the kind of IAEA inspection regime and transparency necessary to make its guarantees real; and until the international community -- and particularly the EU and United States -- provide a far more specific package of incentives; all of this is something that still is to be determined. And I think, really, a little patience may be the most important commodity here.

This flurry of diplomatic activity on Iran is reminiscent of the final months of the administration of President Bill Clinton in 2000, when he made a last-ditch effort -- unsuccessful, as it turned out -- to secure a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. Is this what Bush is doing with Iran?

Cordesman: A great many people feel that the Bush administration made an extraordinarily serious mistake in focusing on the "axis of evil," an ideological approach to dealing with Iran, to alienating the Khatami regime -- and, in fact, making it impossible for the Khatami regime to move forward at a moment when there was some momentum in U.S. and Iranian negotiations over Afghanistan. But I also think if you look at the chronology of events, the United States has consistently pursued a diplomatic option now for more than four years.

The steps forward in dealing with the International Atomic Energy Agency, with the European Union, with the UN, China, and Russia to seek cooperative action have been steady and systematic. The U.S. has been willing -- and shown it's been willing -- to talk to Iran.

So are these important steps forward? The answer is yes. Are they perhaps coming too late in this administration to really move forward at a critical moment of time? That may well be true. But I don't think that it's fair to describe this as a sudden end-of-administration set of actions.
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