- By Laura RozenLaura Rozen writes The Cable daily at ForeignPolicy.com.
The United States today announced that it would join international talks with Iran on its nuclear program. The announcement came at the conclusion of meetings in London Wednesday of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany (the P5+1). The international group said it would extend an invitation to Iran to participate in future talks.
“On the nuclear issue, the U.S. remains committed to the P-5+1 process,” State Department spokesman Robert Wood said. “What is different is that the U.S. will join P-5+1 discussions with Iran from now on.”
Last July, after previously insisting Iran must suspend enriching uranium before the United States would participate in talks with it, the Bush administration sent a diplomat to Geneva to attend international discussions that included Iran. But the Bush administration instructed the American official, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns, to observe, but not participate with his Iranian counterpart. His presence was to be a one-time affair, at which Iran could take or leave an international offer of inducements in exchange for giving up its uranium enrichment program.
Wood said today Washington’s approach going forward would be more sustained diplomatic engagement. “A diplomatic solution necessitates a willingness to engage directly with each other on the basis of mutual respect and mutual interest,” he said.
“If Iran accepts, we hope this will be the occasion to seriously engage Iran on how to break the logjam of recent years and work in a cooperative manner to resolve the outstanding international concerns about its nuclear program,” Wood said.
State Department sources said the phones were ringing off the hooks with interest over the news.
But Gary Sick, a former NSC Iran hand, told Foreign Policy the announcement was wholly in line with what the Obama people have been saying from the beginning. “Basically, you can talk about [engagement] in the abstract.” Today’s announcement, he said, signals “they are actually going to do this.”
“My big question is whether the Obama administration thought about whether to go right into negotiations now before the Iranian elections in June,” Sick continued. “My own sense is in the meantime, there are a number of steps to be taken. They can have preliminary meetings about the shape of the table, who has a copy of the agenda,” etc.
The Obama administration’s Iran policy to date seems “an extension and intensification of trends of the previous administration,” said Patrick Clawson, deputy director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “This crowd is still feeling their way. I assume that the style we see emerging of not making dramatic changes in policy, rolling out the president to reach out to people — that they see this as an effective instrument. I don’t see a dramatic change,” but more incremental and stylistic ones.
The State Department said it did not have an exact date or location of the next planned P5+1 meeting to which Iran would be invited to come. One official said he expected it to occur within the next couple of months. It wasn’t yet clear Iran would accept the invitation.
Analysts said that while Obama had recently made statements saying he would support a peaceful nuclear energy program in Iran, the administration was still not showing its hand about whether it would tolerate Iran enriching its own fuel for such a program. The Bush administration as well as U.S. allies including France and Britain have previously insisted that any sort of nuclear fuel for such an Iranian program be supplied from outside Iran. Iran insists it has the right to enrich uranium on its own soil under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, to which it is a signatory.
“So far, we don’t know if there have been other substantive shifts on the position of how to resolve this issue,” said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council. “But it will be more difficult to resolve if the U.S. is not there.”
“We will support Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear energy with rigorous inspections,” Obama said in Prague last weekend. “That’s a path that the Islamic Republic can take."
Administration officials said the review of U.S. policy toward Iran is ongoing. But Iran policy watchers noted signs of decisions reached on a number of policy steps that have emerged in recent actions. Beyond today’s announcement, they pointed to U.S. special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke’s meeting last week with an Iranian official on the sidelines of the Afghanistan conference in The Hague, and Obama’s Iranian New Year’s video message addressed to both the Iranian people and the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The Obama administration’s sustained overtures seem to be stirring Iranian domestic debate. In a live broadcast television speech today, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad echoed language from Obama’s video message and an earlier interview with Al Arabiya television, in which Obama talked about “mutual respect” and extending a hand to countries that unclench their fist. “The Iranian people would welcome a hand extended to it if the hand is truly based on honesty,” Ahmadinejad was cited.
“Ahmadinejad is very worried that he is going to be outflanked,” by presidential rivals calling for accepting Washington’s invitation to engage, commented Sick. Obama “has changed the terms of the debate,” inside Iran, he said. “People now feel obliged to talk about this issue and to try to outdo each other."
Washington was represented at the P5+1 meetings in London today by Under Secretary Burns. He was accompanied by the NSC senior director on Iran and Persian Gulf issues Puneet Talwar.
Sources said they believed that the NSC’s Talwar, who previously worked as a Middle East advisor to Vice President Joseph Biden when he was Senate Foreign Relations committee chairman, has influence on the emerging U.S. policy towards Iran. Some said they saw signs that U.S. policy toward Iran was emanating more from the White House than the State Department.