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Washington’s Diplomatic Thaw

Author: Greg Bruno
Updated: January 7, 2008

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War-fueled rhetoric between Washington and Tehran has, at times, sounded more “dire prophecy” than “empty threat,” especially over the issue of nuclear weapons. On a visit to New York City in September 2007, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared Iran’s nuclear ambitions a “closed” international matter (Reuters). The bold pronouncement brought bellicose warnings from President Bush who, a month later, alluded to World War III (IHT) should Iran go nuclear. Bush is expected to keep the pressure on (WashPost) during his upcoming trip to the Middle East, when aides say he will seek to rally support for international sanctions.

But for all the bluster of 2007—and an early 2008 promise from Washington to keep Tehran in its crosshairs (Reuters)—the near-term diplomatic forecast between the two capitals is less ominous. U.S. and Iranian officials are scheduled to meet in Baghdad soon to discuss Iran’s role in Iraq’s security situation. The meeting, scheduled for December 18 but later postponed, would be the fourth round of talks (AP) between the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, and his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Kazemi Qomi. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has also sounded a conciliatory note of late. During a briefing with reporters December 21, Rice left open the possibility of holding direct talks with Iranian officials before Bush leaves office.

Washington’s courting of historical foes is not limited to Iran. In December 2007 Bush wrote a personal letter to North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il offering improved relations (IHT) if the reclusive regime comes clean on its nuclear weapons program. U.S. officials have extended feelers toward Syria, too, and laid preliminary plans for Rice to visit Libya. (She met with Libya's foreign minister, Abdel-Rahman Shalqam, for an hour in Washington on January 3). The United States has even softened its stance (TIME) on climate change after years of refusing to budge. Yet Iran may offer the starkest example of a diplomatic about-face.

Pragmatism appears to be driving Washington’s maneuvering. U.S. efforts to win a third round of UN Security Council sanctions against Iran have been impacted by a December 2007 U.S. intelligence report concluding Tehran likely ceased its nuclear weapons program in late 2003. The findings contradicted previous White House assertions and, some analysts say, undercut the United States’ ability to unite allies—most notably China and Russia—in efforts to isolate Iran. U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE) says the report leaves the Bush administration with little choice but to begin “direct, unconditional and comprehensive talks.” Iran’s nuclear ambitions are expected to be on the agenda (Haaretz) when Bush travels to Jerusalem on Tuesday to meet with leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Gerald M. Steinberg, a national security expert at Bar-Ilan University, says Israel fears that a relaxed U.S. policy toward Iran could embolden Tehran in the region.

To be sure, the historically tense relationship between the United States and Iran remains volatile. Navy vessels nearly fired (AP) on Iranian Revolutionary Guard boats during a brief altercation January 6 in the Strait of Hormuz. Pentagon officials called the confrontation, which ended without incident, the “most serious provocation” by Iran in years. Politically, the climate is equally fragile. The Bush administration has placed stringent conditions on the restoration of relations with Iran, including demands that Tehran suspend its enrichment and reprocessing of uranium. Iranian leaders have balked at the nuclear ultimatum, but have indicated a desire for renewed talks on security in Iraq (AP). Concessions, though, won’t come freely. When Iran assisted the United States in toppling the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2003, the Islamic Republic demanded the United States recognize Tehran’s regional security interests, and eliminate international sanctions. “That offer was ignored,” Daniel Levy, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, writes in a Jerusalem Post op-ed. It’s unclear whether the United States’ willingness to extend carrots has changed.

Hoping for a diplomatic breakthrough, of course, will not make it so; U.S. officials still disagree on Iran’s desire to cooperate. Within the U.S. State Department, diplomats have said Tehran appears to be working to curb the flow of Iranian-made roadside bombs into Iraq while pressuring Shiite militias to observe cease-fires (WashPost). Pentagon officials remain more skeptical (WSJ). The biggest hurdle to improved relations, however, may be Washington’s historic reluctance to fully engage. As CFR’s Vali R. Nasr and Ray Takeyh write in Foreign Affairs, the principal challenge for the Bush administration is to dispel its long-held belief that Iran’s “unsavory behavior cannot be changed through creative diplomacy.”

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