U.S. plans first ever nuke talks with Iran

July 16, 2008 6:48:52 PM PDT
The United States will send a senior diplomat to attend international meetings with Iran this weekend, marking the first time it has engaged Iran directly in talks aimed at halting Tehran's nuclear program. It will also be one of the rare occasions in the past three decades where U.S. and Iranian diplomats sit down at the same table. The move is a turnaround for the Bush administration, which had said it would not talk with Iran until it suspended its nuclear ambitions.

William Burns, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, will travel to Geneva Saturday to meet with Iran's nuclear negotiator alongside representatives from five world powers who have tried to convince Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions.

"The fact that Undersecretary Burns will be attending the meeting really serves to clarify the choices that the Iranian regime faces," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters today.

"It sends a strong signal to the world; it sends a strong signal to the Iranian government that the United States is committed to diplomacy, to finding a diplomatic solution to this issue," he said.

Bush administration officials have resisted calls for direct engagement with Iran for two years, saying they would only do so if Iran suspends its nuclear program.

"We would be willing to meet with them, but not while they continue to inch closer to a nuclear weapon under the cover of talk," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said last month in a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. "So the real question is not: Why won't the Bush administration talk to Tehran? The real question is: Why won't Tehran talk to us?"

The United States has not had diplomatic ties with Iran for almost 30 years, dating to 1979 when American diplomats were held hostage at the U.S. embassy in Tehran for 444 days.

Since then, meetings between the two countries have been few and far between, usually occurring at large international gatherings like those at the United Nations.

The Bush administration has seldomly engaged Iran. It did so first after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 when Iran helped combat al Qaeda and its Taliban backers. The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, has met with his Iranian counterpart in Baghdad in the past year to discuss American claims that Tehran is supporting violence against American soldiers in Iraq.

The U.S. and a group of world powers, known collectively as the P5+1, presented Iran with an offer two years ago: Give up your nuclear program and reap economic and diplomatic benefits, or continue enriching uranium, a key step in the march toward creating nuclear weapons, and face increased sanctions and pressure.

Iran has refused to suspend enrichment and, in return, the United Nations Security Council passed three rounds of sanctions to ratchet up the pressure on Iran. The United States and European countries have also taken steps on their own to isolate Iranian leaders and entities associated with the nuclear and missile programs.

The Bush administration has found itself in recent months under increasing pressure to exhaust all diplomatic efforts with Iran. As the prospect of armed conflict with Iran rose in the face of Israeli war games mimicking an attack on Iran and hawks in the Bush administration pushed for harsher responses to the perceived Iranian threat, the administration was eager to show it favored a diplomatic solution to the situation. It has maintained, however, that the option of military action against Iran will always remain on the table.

Throughout the presidential race, the Bush administration has been criticized by the presumptive Democratic nominee, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., who has said that he would meet with Iranian officials if elected president.

Obama today welcomed the move to send Burns to the meeting with Iran, saying, "Now that the United States is involved, it should stay involved with the full strength of our diplomacy. A united front with our friends and allies directly calling on the Iranians to stand down on their illicit nuclear program will maximize the international pressure we can bring to bear and will show the Iranian people that Iran's isolation is a function of its government's unwillingness to live up to its obligations."

In her speech last month, Rice seemed to reject Obama's proposal, saying ,"This debate, though, should not be about whether we talk to Iran. That is not the real issue. Diplomacy is not a synonym for talking. True diplomacy means structuring a set of incentives and disincentives to produce change in behavior."

The administration has also come under increased pressure from Capitol Hill to engage Iran.

"I believe the United States should agree to directly engage Iran, first in the context of the P5 + 1, and ultimately country to country, just as we did in North Korea," Sen Joe Biden, D-Del., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said last week.

The State Department today rejected any comparison between negotiations with Iran and those with North Korea as "apples and oranges."

The top Republican on the committee, Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, seconded Biden's proposal, saying an American seat at the table with Iran would underscore the "seriousness" of the offer being presented to Iran.