OpinionIran in the World PressAnalysis: Hopes for better Iran ties lag

Analysis: Hopes for better Iran ties lag

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AP: The Bush administration’s second-term gambit to remake the troubled U.S. relationship with Iran has run out of gas and time. The Associated Press

By ANNE GEARAN

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Bush administration’s second-term gambit to remake the troubled U.S. relationship with Iran has run out of gas and time.

The centerpiece of the effort, a 2006 offer for the highest-level direct U.S.-Iranian talks since the former allies severed ties nearly three decades ago, went nowhere. The U.S. drive to impose U.N. penalties on Iran over its nuclear program barely pinched the oil-rich nation, and perhaps pushed Iran farther from the bargaining table.

A smaller attempt to engage Iran on a topic of mutual concern — the fate of Iraq — has had no measurable effect.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s nearly two-year-old offer to negotiate Iran’s disputed nuclear program came with a tantalizing promise that she would also listen to anything else the Iranians wanted to say. That was a remarkable curtsy to a government widely distrusted within the Bush administration and branded by Bush as part of an “axis of evil.”

It also came with conditions Iran saw no reason to meet.

Now, both sides are running out the clock on Bush’s term.

“No one sees it as more advantageous than not to try to get some deal now,” said a senior administration official close to Iran planning who spoke privately to discuss internal deliberations. “It’s easier to just let it slide to the next administration.”

Some Iran analysts said the carrot-and-stick offer came too late, after a brief window for rapprochement with Iran had closed. Others said it once had a slim chance of success but was overtaken by events.

“I suppose there is still a chance” that Iran could meet U.S. and international conditions and agree to new talks over its nuclear program, said Ray Takeyh, top Iran analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations. “But that’s sort of like saying if I was 6-8, I could play for the Celtics.”

Having failed to coerce Iran to bargain, the U.S. is loosing ground in its effort to punish the clerical rulers for rejecting the offer.

The U.S. is leading the push for a third set of U.N. penalties even though Iran has ignored two rounds of watered-down measures. The fight this time has taken far longer than the U.S. wanted and the proposed measures are far weaker than the U.S. once sought.

A recent U.S. intelligence assessment that Iran had a clandestine weapons program but stopped working on it four years ago has taken the punch out of Washington’s argument for new penalties. It also has effectively removed the threat — always far-fetched — that the U.S. would go to war over the issue.

Additionally, the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency may conclude within a few weeks that Iran is doing its part to help an international investigation into the origins of its once-secret nuclear program. Such a finding would undercut the U.S. claim that Iran has something to hide.

Apparently concerned the report will favor Iran, the U.S. is demanding that Iran admit that it tried to make atomic weapons in the past. Iran denies ever working on a nuclear weapons program and says it wants to develop civilian nuclear energy, which would free up more of its energy resources for export.

The recently announced retirement of the chief U.S. negotiator on Iran, Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, was seen inside the administration and out as a clear sign the talk-or-penalties venture had run its course.

At least in public, Rice and other administration officials do not dismiss the possibility of talks with Iran before Bush leaves office next January. There is little incentive for either Iran or the administration to make hard choices now, however, and both sides recently have hardened their rhetoric.

“As to whether or not we can improve the state of U.S.-Iranian relations, that’s something that I would put to Iran,” Rice said last month. “As I’ve said several times, the question isn’t why won’t we talk to Tehran. The question is does Tehran want to talk to the United States?”

The U.S. claims that even mild international penalties give backbone to a separate U.S. effort to crimp Iran’s vast overseas financial operations. Solo U.S. financial penalties have had a ripple effect, seen as international banks have scaled back financial dealings with Iran. The effort has not persuaded Iran to back down an inch on its nuclear program.

The U.S. has little independent diplomatic or economic leverage over Iran, and needs other nations to give meaning to any threat of economic loss.

Iran and the U.S. have had no diplomatic relations since shortly after the 1979 storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran when American diplomats were held hostage. Since then, the U.S. has cut nearly all economic ties.

Rice got Bush’s blessing to make a major shift in U.S. policy less than three months into her term as top diplomat in 2005, when the U.S. agreed to support stalled European nonproliferation talks with Tehran.

U.S. officials had dismissed the European talks as fruitless or counterproductive. Rice argued that Iran was exploiting the breach between the U.S. and Europe.

When the European negotiations remained stalled the next year, Rice sweetened the pot by offering to show up for talks herself if Iran first agreed to halt nuclear development the West feared would yield a bomb. Although Iran had previously agreed to that condition, it has now dug in and refused to halt the work under any circumstances.

The offer was never fully supported across the Bush administration. Some of Bush’s most conservative advisers disliked the offer, but backed it on assumption it would fail. The few voices arguing for the bolder move — talks without conditions — did not get much of a hearing.

A new day in the U.S. relationship with Iran could have given a rare foreign policy success to an administration bogged down in Iraq and often criticized as inflexible.

If that opportunity ultimately came at too high a price for the U.S., the same is probably true for Iran.

Iran is gambling that it can amass enough nuclear know-how to either build the power plants it says it wants or extract a better deal from the West down the road.

“They recognize the Iran policy is likely to be under debate, if not in some flux, with the next administration,” said Suzanne Maloney, a Brookings Institution analyst. She was a top State Department analyst on Iran during the administration’s shift in tactics.

“They are calculating they can wait out the Bush administration and get as much (nuclear) infrastructure as possible before they have to stop and deal,” said Maloney, who is married to Takeyh, the Council on Foreign Relations analyst.

It stands to reason that if the administration dropped a hard line against any talks with Iran in favor of negotiations with conditions, the next administration might well offer Iran a bargain with no such terms.

EDITOR’S NOTE – Anne Gearan covers diplomacy and foreign affairs for The Associated Press, based in Washington.

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