Iran Nuclear NewsTwo tracks on Iran: Keep talking, and weigh penalties

Two tracks on Iran: Keep talking, and weigh penalties


New York Times: After intense talks about Iran’s nuclear program, the United States and other major world powers face two unappealing choices as the United Nations General Assembly opens this week: introduce a resolution in the Security Council for sanctions against Tehran that may not be tough enough to make a difference, or delay any punitive measures, rendering their diplomacy on Iran meaningless. The New York Times


WASHINGTON, Sept. 16 — After intense talks about Iran’s nuclear program, the United States and other major world powers face two unappealing choices as the United Nations General Assembly opens this week: introduce a resolution in the Security Council for sanctions against Tehran that may not be tough enough to make a difference, or delay any punitive measures, rendering their diplomacy on Iran meaningless.

So the Bush administration, along with Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany, have quietly shifted their strategy.

In June, the six global powers offered Iran a take-it-or-leave-it package of incentives in an effort to persuade the country to abandon its nuclear ambitions. No negotiations would start unless Iran first froze its uranium enrichment activities.

Now the six countries have offered a major concession. They are embarking on a two-track approach that allows the European Union foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, to conduct open-ended negotiations with Iran on the conditions for a suspension while the Security Council weighs punitive measures.

Mr. Solana and Iran’s chief negotiator, Ali Larijani, met twice last weekend and plan to hold talks on Sunday in New York, a senior Bush administration official said.

“I think there’s a chance that Iran sees it has to move,” a European diplomat said Friday. “We want to get those people to the table. The key thing here is to leave the door open.”

In diplomatic terms, the embrace of what is being called the practical, two-track approach looks like a subtle change. But in reality it is a fundamental shift and an admission of how few options President Bush and his European allies have.

The Iran negotiations have a certain “Groundhog Day’’ quality. In the fall of 2003, the United States was raising pressure on its European allies to refer Iran to the Security Council for sanctions. But with Russia and China threatening to veto, Britain, France and Germany worked out a deal with Iran: no referral of Iran’s nuclear program to the Security Council if Iran suspended uranium enrichment, the first step in making fuel for nuclear power or a bomb.

A lot has happened since then, but one thing is the same: Iran is still enriching uranium.

The Bush administration is again ready to push forward on a sanctions package at the United Nations, but it is doubtful whether the United States and Europe will get Russia and China to sign on to anything but relatively mild sanctions, at least at first. Many analysts contend that Iran can withstand most of the measures under consideration, which include a travel ban against Iranian officials working in the nuclear program and restrictions on the sale of nuclear components to Tehran.

If Europe and the United States insist on tougher sanctions, Russia and China might balk, and the coalition — fragile, but a conduit for pressure nonetheless — could fall apart. That is why, despite the expiration of the Aug. 31 deadline for Iran to suspend enrichment or face sanctions, the United States and Europe remain willing to keep talking.

Or rather, the United States remains willing to speak through Europe.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pushed President Bush to offer to end Washington’s policy of nearly three decades against direct talks with Iran if it suspended uranium enrichment. Iran has been seeking direct talks on any subject, seeking recognition of its growing regional influence and validation from its longstanding opponent.

But even though the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is also scheduled to be in New York for the General Assembly, Mr. Bush has dismissed the possibility of the two meeting.

At a news conference on Friday, he said: “I have made it clear to the Iranian regime that we will sit down with the Iranians once they verifiably suspend their enrichment program. I meant what I said.”

Nor will Ms. Rice or R. Nicholas Burns, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, meet with Mr. Larijani, American officials said.

But, they said, administration officials will certainly be monitoring the Larijani-Solana talks.

Foreign ministers from the six countries are planning to meet to discuss Iran on Tuesday or Wednesday.

European and American diplomats, who spoke on condition of anonymity according to normal diplomatic protocol, are still trying to determine whether Iran is serious about an offer they say Mr. Larijani made to suspend uranium enrichment for two months.

The diplomats say that Mr. Larijani has made the same overture several times, only to take it back, leaving the impression that he does not have the full authority to negotiate and that Iran’s leadership is divided on nuclear strategy. The Iranians’ 20-page response to the European Union on the proffered incentives — rambling and imprecise — strongly suggests that there are differing camps within Iran.

Indeed, in remarks to reporters on Friday, Mr. Solana acknowledged that there are divisions in Tehran, which he said were the reason he did not meet with Mr. Larijani this week. “A little bit more time was needed in order to reach a consensus in his own country among his own leadership” to “convey to me a possible positive answer,” Mr. Solana said.

The European foreign policy chief’s inclination to continue talking, meanwhile, has frustrated the Bush administration.

“Larijani and Solana have been engaged in this minuet,” a senior Bush administration official said. “The U.S. view is that those talks are worthwhile, but not sufficient. We will be moving early in the week to move forward on a sanctions resolution.”

If Iran does take up the offer, it is one that the United States and Europe should not refuse, said Robert J. Einhorn, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and former assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation under President Bill Clinton.

“If the Europeans and Iranians can cobble together even a limited-duration suspension, we could dodge another bullet, at least for a while,” Mr. Einhorn said. But, he added, “it’s not at all clear we’re going to get to that point. Even their initial offer had a lot of provisos.”

Some analysts say that neither the international pressure on Iran, nor Iran’s enrichment program, is likely to end soon.

“Next year,” said George Perkovich, a nonproliferation expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, “we’re going to be at the same spot still.”

Helene Cooper reported from Washington, and Elaine Sciolino from Paris.

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