A RICE U-TURN?
On 31 May, US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice made a dramatic
announcement regarding US policy towards Iran. After steadfastly
refusing to contemplate face-to-face talks with the Iranian government
over its nuclear power programme, the United States was now ready
to join in multilateral talks with Iran, alongside members of
the European Union.
Presented in much of the British press as
a 'U-turn', there was in fact less to the offer than it appeared
at first sight. The US is taking a gamble in making this offer
to Iran, but the risk it is taking is that Tehran will accept
the poison chalice being presented by Washington.
The US is only making this offer because
it is confident that the Iranian government will refuse to accept
the preconditions to negotiations that the US is trying to impose.
The Iranian government has been adamant that its uranium enrichment
programme, which is entirely legal under the Non-Proliferation
Treaty, must be preserved in some form in any negotiated settlement.
The US is demanding that enrichment be 'fully and verifiably'
suspended before it will start negotiations. In other words: 'give
up your main bargaining chip before you sit down to talk'.
Times reported the (foreseeable) reaction under the headline,
'Rice talks offer set to deepen scepticism in Tehran'. The 'offer'
was creating negative rather than positive feelings in Iranian
There were two main reasons. Firstly, Condoleezza Rice's 'insistence
that "all options", including threatened military strikes,
were on the table will increase the deep scepticism in Tehran
over US motives and rally those in outright opposition to any
talks. (FT, 31 May 2006)
Rice had been asked in her press conference:
'you have always refused to rule out the military option against
Iran. But are you prepared to consider taking that option off
the table, at least temporarily while negotiations go ahead?'
She replied: 'The President is not going to take any of his options
off the table, temporarily or otherwise.'
Rice was even
more threatening: 'we're not going to stop work on - with
our friends and allies - on what we might do if Iran makes the
wrong choice.... We have options that are very near-term options
should they not make the right choice.'
The second reason for Iranian concern was the suspension precondition.
The FT reported: 'Even those arguing that any successful negotiations
over Iran's atomic programme must involve the US are likely to
reject Ms Rice's demand that Iran first end all uranium enrichment.
Iran's bottom line for its nuclear programme appears, at the very
least, to be continuing the research project resumed in January
at the Natanz plant, which enriches uranium in 164 centrifuges.'
Even the most conciliatory elements in ruling
circles are likely to refuse to accept the US proposal. Given
the previous history of Iranian suspension during EU negotiations,
which produced nothing tangible from an Iranian point of view,
and cost the government considerable public anger, this was foreseeable.
The US imposed this precondition knowing
it was likely to be rejected by even the most 'open' parts of
the Iranian foreign policy establishment.
TIMING THE PROPOSAL
It seems entirely likely that the US proposal came when it did
because of a recent hardening of the Iranian position on negotiations,
increasing the chances of rejection. For some time now the idea
has been in the air of negotiations between Washington and Tehran
on the situation in Iraq, where the US has major troop deployment
and a substantial political investment, on the one hand, and where
Iran has major security concerns (as a neighbouring country) on
The US has blown hot and cold on whether
to hold these talks for some time. Iran was initially positive,
but on 26 May the Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki
said they were no longer prepared to hold such discussions: 'The
American side tried to use this decision as propaganda, and they
raised some other issues, they tried to create a negative atmosphere,
and that is why the decision which was taken is for the time being
suspended.' (BBC, 26 May 2006)
The US chose a moment when Iran seemed to be moving away from
the idea of engaging with the West, to launch a diplomatic initiative.
The initiative was accompanied by threatening language warning
of imminent attack options, and it demanded of the Iranians a
concession which even the most conciliatory elements in Iranian
ruling circles are known to regard as unacceptable. What conclusion
can one draw other than that the proposal was made to be refused?
CONFIRMATION: THE TIMES
This indeed is the analysis, reading between the lines, of The
Times columnist Gerard Baker (Times,
2 June 2006):
'the symbolism of Dr Rice's gambit was
more important than the substance. The State Department is now
into the most critical phase yet of a delicate and high-risk
game. It is a game that some in Washington feel is destined
to fail; but, for the time being at least, the President has
ruled that it is the game that the US will play. Few people
in Washington believe Iran is going to abandon its attempts
to join the nuclear club without serious international pressure
or even the deeply unattractive military option. The only hope
of avoiding the apocalyptic choice is a regime of eye-wateringly
tight international economic and diplomatic pressure. But to
achieve that, the US has to be seen to be working overtime on
Because of the Iraq war, the world is sceptical
regarding US policy towards Iran. The opportunity is there for
a propaganda victory, however, according to Baker:
'With Iran, the US has to succeed where
it largely failed in Iraq, in demonstrating to a sceptical world
that the US really wants to give diplomacy a chance to work,
and to ensure that if (and when) it fails, it will not be the
US that will be responsible. The argument at the State Department
is that, having thus demonstrated its bona fides the US will
be able to persuade the rest of the world to get tough with
The point is not to achieve a diplomatic
solution, resolving the concerns around Iran's nuclear programme
by negotiation. The point is to use diplomatic trickery to shift
responsibility for the crisis away from the US and towards Iran.
So far there have been considerable gains in this area, as many
countries fall in line with the US demand.
Not everyone is falling into line, however, including at least
one permanent member of the Security Council. Wang Guangya, China's
ambassador to the UN, said the United States should provide Iran
with security assurances and drop its demand that Iran cease uranium
enrichment before such talks could begin: 'I think it in a way
proves that the U.S. is more serious about the negotiations than
about other options, but I do hope that this offer could be less
conditional,' he said.
Wang also stressed the need for the US to
offer more "attractive carrots" to the Iranians, including
crucial security assurances, and a pledge to allow Tehran to pursue
a peaceful nuclear energy program, including a small research-and-development
project on uranium enrichment. (Washington
Post, 1 June 2006)
This seems an entirely sensible approach,
but is being drowned out by US propaganda, amplified by the world's