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Emily B. Landau: US Engagement With Iran

Tel Aviv Notes - No. 173 June 6, 2006

US Engagement With Iran:
The Moment Of Truth In The Nuclear Crisis?

Emily B. Landau
Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced last week that the US is now willing to engage in dialogue with Iran on the nuclear issue within the framework of multilateral talks with the EU-3, on condition that Iran suspends its uranium enrichment activities. This announcement was hailed as a major change in US policy on the Iranian nuclear crisis, as the US has not held direct official talks with Iran since diplomatic ties were severed by the US in April 1980, in the wake of the hostage crisis.

The announcement came in the wake of increasing pressure on the US to engage with Iran and widespread intimations that the previous rounds of negotiations between the EU-3 and Iran had failed to produce the desired results because of the American refusal to become an active participant. According to this line of thinking, any conclusion that the diplomatic option has been exhausted (which might pave the way for harsher measures such as sanctions, in the first instance) would only be sustainable after the US had at least attempted to talk directly with Iran. As a result, the international community has now moved one step closer to meeting the criteria that will, in the case of failure, enable it to consolidate broader agreement on implementation of sanctions. Indeed, there are initial indications that Russia and China are willing to go along with this logic and that they will agree to the package of incentives and threats (of consequences if Iran fails to comply) that was presented to Iran today by the EU High Representative for Foreign Policy, Javier Solana.

But has the moment of truth in this crisis really arrived? Are we finally at the crucial juncture where we can say that Iran is being offered a clear choice between compliance and defiance and that the direction it chooses will ultimately determine whether we are headed toward resolution of the crisis or confrontation? Judging from the dynamics of the crisis so far, this is by no means a foregone conclusion. Iran has proved very adept over the past three years at not accepting what is offered but not closing the door on continuing negotiations.

Iran uses negotiations to maneuver for time. Suffice it to recall that when the IAEA appeared to be about to get firm with Iran in 2003, Iran opted for negotiations with the EU-3. And when a dead-end was reached with the EU-3 and the issue was referred to the UN Security Council, Iran began to lean toward the softer approach that IAEA General Secretary Mohamed ElBaradei seemed then to be offering, and once again claimed that the issue should be taken out of the hands of the Security Council and returned to the IAEA.

Moreover, this is not the first time a so-called moment of truth has been reached – and then passed without any serious repercussions. That has happened before, most recently when it was assumed that Iran's reaction to an offer to carry out uranium enrichment on Russian soil would clarify beyond a doubt whether its intentions in the nuclear realm were benign or not.

Any expectation that Iran’s response to the American offer will be a clarifying moment is therefore likely to be disappointed. Instead, Iran will almost surely shift back and forth and refrain from giving either a clear-cut acceptance or refusal, instead prolonging its "definite maybe" for as long as possible. Indeed, Iran has already signaled a willingness to engage with the US while simultaneously rejecting any preconditions (i.e., suspension of enrichment) for dialogue, thereby raising an issue that will provoke discussion in the international community and buy Iran more time even before it says either “Yes” or “No” to the contents of the proposed package.

Given that the US will only take part in negotiations together with the EU-3 and has not offered bilateral negotiations, the change in its posture is not of revolutionary magnitude. However, it does constitute a significant shift, one that is in no way matched by a change on the other side. There is no indication that Iran will be more willing to accept any package of incentives than it has been in the past. Nor is it at all certain that Russia, in the event of Iranian non-compliance, will follow through on its support for the threat of sanctions. As the prospect of implementing that threat looms larger on the horizon, cracks in what today looks like a more united international front against Iran are likely to reappear.

Ultimately, there are no clear-cut criteria for definitively concluding that the diplomatic option has been exhausted. If there is political will on both sides to keep negotiations going, a case can always be made for doing so, even if there are serious bumps on the way. The problem, so far, is that Iran seems to be the more skilful player in the negotiations game. Given the harsh language used by the foreign ministers of the EU-3 last summer when Iran resumed uranium conversion activities, it would have been difficult to imagine that less than a year later they would once again be formulating a package of incentives for Iran, especially since Iran has meanwhile moved beyond conversion to the stage of actual enrichment.

If the international community truly wishes to deal effectively with Iran’s military nuclear ambitions, it will need to abandon its current practice of repeatedly waiting to see how Iran will react to yet another in a chain of "moments of truth." That simply provides Iran with yet another chance to display its skill in negotiations and leaves the international community on a diplomatic road leading nowhere.


Tel Aviv Notes is published by


The Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies

& The Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies

through the generosity of Sari and Israel Roizman, Philadelphia


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