Sunday, July 20, 2008

A Seat at the Table

When speaking to the Israeli Knesset a few months ago, President Bush inferred that Barack Obama was dangerously naïve and that his willingness to explore diplomacy with Iran was equivalent to the European appeasement of Adolph Hitler in 1938. But, as reported this week, in a small victory for pragmatism, the Administration is steadily reversing course – choosing to follow a path more in line with Obama than John McCain.

The Bush administration is considering establishing an American diplomatic presence in Iran for the first time since relations were severed during the 444-day occupation of the American Embassy in Tehran nearly three decades ago, European and American officials said on Thursday.

The idea would be to establish a so-called interests section, rather than a fully staffed embassy, with American diplomats who could issue visas to Iranians seeking to visit the United States. But the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity under diplomatic rules, cautioned that the idea had not been approved by the White House and could be delayed or blocked by opposition within the administration.

The proposal comes as the White House is adopting new tactics in dealing with Iran. With six months left in office, Mr. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice appear to be looking for new ways to reach out to the Iranian people as the administration tries to bring a peaceful resolution to the impasse over Iran’s nuclear program.

The Times opines on the decision:

We welcome the news that President Bush has decided to send one of his top diplomats to talks on Iran’s nuclear program. That is quite a change from just a few months ago when Mr. Bush denounced as appeasement any effort to talk to “terrorists and radicals.”

It is very late in the game, but we hope this means that Mr. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are learning the lessons of seven years of failed foreign policies built almost completely on isolating (or attacking) America’s adversaries. There is little chance of solving major international problems so long as this country refuses even to have a seat at the table.

We also hope it means that Vice President Dick Cheney and his crew have given up their dangerous fantasy of bombing away Iran’s nuclear ambitions - or at least have been overruled by the president. It has been two years since the United Nations ordered Iran to stop enriching uranium. Tehran continues to defy that order, and its scientists are getting ever closer to mastering a process that is the hardest part of building a nuclear weapon.

The United States and other major powers (Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia) have tried to use a mixture of incentives and sanctions to get Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions. But neither the rewards nor the punishments have been especially persuasive. China and Russia, which have strong economic ties to Iran, have blocked tough sanctions, while the Bush administration has not made a credible offer of improved relations and security guarantees and had refused to sit down at the negotiating table.

Mr. Bush’s decision to send William Burns (Ms. Rice’s third in command and a well-respected former ambassador to Russia) to join the European Union’s foreign policy chief and other top diplomats in talks with Iran makes any incentives package look more credible. It also shifts the diplomatic pressure back to Tehran. And it will make it harder for Beijing and Moscow to resist imposing a new round of sanctions if Iran remains obstinate.

Washington could do even better - with the Iranian people, international opinion and possibly Iran’s leaders - if it followed up with an offer to open an interests section in Tehran.The administration is grudgingly asserting this is a “one-time-only” deal and that Mr. Burns will not negotiate with the Iranians or hold separate meetings with them. We welcome Mr. Bush’s willingness to try diplomacy for a change. But he might do even better if he didn’t trumpet his ambivalence quite so loudly.

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