China and Russia finally endorsed a package of penalties and incentives proposed by Western nations to persuade Iran to suspend its nuclear program. The contents of the package have not yet been made public but reportedly make no reference to "sanctions" (NYT). The agreement comes on the heels of the White House's announcement it would reverse twenty-seven years of official U.S. policy and engage directly in multilateral talks with Iran (LAT), provided Tehran first suspends its uranium-enrichment activities. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters she hopes the Iranian government "will thoroughly consider this proposal."
The Iranian foreign minister indicated his country is willing to deal directly with the Americans, but not on the precondition Tehran first suspend its uranium-enrichment activities (ISN). In the days ahead, Iran's response will be watched closely since, as this Backgrounder explains, it is not always clear who is setting foreign policy in Tehran.
The U.S. decision to engage Iran comes amid repeated calls by former U.S. officials, arms-control experts, and newspaper editorialists to engage directly with Tehran versus through proxies like the EU-3. It also comes in the wake of an unprecedented letter sent by President Ahmadinejad to President Bush. In an interview with Bernard Gwertzman, Trita Parsi of the National Iranian-American Council says there should be direct U.S.-Iran dialogue not only on the nuclear issue but also on the issues of Iraq, drugs, terrorism, and the stalled Middle East peace process. CFR President Richard Haass, speaking at a Washington Institute symposium, says the White House should respond "not to the letter received [by Ahmadinejad] but to the letter the United States wishes it had received."
Not everyone agrees with the merits of dealing directly with Iran, given the two countries' turbulent history. In this Online Debate, Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy says that during the past twenty-seven years, every time Washington and Tehran have sought engagement—i.e. the Iran-Contra Affair, the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing—it has ended in embarrassment for the United States. The International Crisis Group's Karim Sadjadpour counters that the Europeans are poor interlocutors and the "first to admit that their return on investment has been a great disappointment."
Meanwhile, with some kind of UN Security Council resolution expected in the days ahead, Washington is pressing China and Russia to secure tough sanctions against Iran, something neither country, given its trade and energy ties with Tehran, wants to pursue. Many scholars are pushing for more involvement from Moscow. The Carnegie Moscow Center's Alexei Arbatov argues that Russians will never support sanctions or a military strike but they do support measures to temporarily suspend Iran's uranium-enrichment activities, in effect, to buy time for UN Security Council members to reach an agreement. CFR Fellow Charles Ferguson says Russia, which increasingly sees itself as an international go-between for conflict resolution, should press Iran to slow down its nuclear activities and to allow special inspections.