Condi’s Iran gambit

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Wall Street Journal – REVIEW & OUTLOOK: When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad publicly released a long, insulting letter seeking direct talks with the U.S. last month, President Bush dismissed it as unworthy of reply. But yesterday Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice delivered the real U.S. answer: Yes. The Wall Street Journal

REVIEW & OUTLOOK

Ahmadinejad gets the direct talks he wanted.

When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad publicly released a long, insulting letter seeking direct talks with the U.S. last month, President Bush dismissed it as unworthy of reply. But yesterday Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice delivered the real U.S. answer: Yes.

In a surprising policy reversal, Ms. Rice offered to negotiate directly with Iran’s mullahs if they first suspend all uranium enrichment and cooperate with United Nations arms inspectors. The Secretary of State seems to have convinced Mr. Bush–over the doubts of Vice President Cheney and others–that this was the only way to prevent the U.S. from being isolated as our European allies ran for cover and Russia resisted any U.N. sanctions. How this new U.S. concession will impress the mullahs to give in is now Ms. Rice’s burden to demonstrate. Good luck.

Granted, the offer has one big virtue: ending the three-year pretense that the so-called EU-3–Britain, France and Germany–had any chance of ending Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Time and again the not-so-big three had threatened “consequences” if Iran continued to enrich uranium, only to back down and force more concessions–from Washington. The mullahs always wanted to talk directly to the U.S. for the implicit recognition such talks would convey, and now they have their wish.

In theory, Condi’s gambit could help to expose Iran’s real intentions should it refuse to negotiate seriously. In theory, too, a determined U.S. could use the direct talks to insist that Tehran undertake a Libyan-like dismantling of its nuclear facilities, complete with random and intrusive inspections. But yesterday’s proposal demands nothing so comprehensive, and the potential sanctions supposedly on the table are still opposed by Russia and China. The ultimate sanction of military force isn’t even hinted at, much less on the table.

Given the concessions he has already won by refusing to cooperate, Mr. Ahmadinejad won’t be in any hurry to oblige now. Already yesterday, Iran was pocketing the direct talks and demanding that any negotiation be “without preconditions.” This was entirely predictable, and you can bet this new Iranian demand will soon be echoed in Paris, Moscow and all too many precincts in Washington.

It was good to hear Presidential spokesman Tony Snow yesterday describe that enrichment precondition as the “foundation stone” of the new U.S. proposal. But will Ms. Rice and her main ally in this windmill tilt–Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns–soon be pressing Mr. Bush to make this concession too?

It’s not as if Iran has met anybody even halfway on concerns about its nuclear program. The U.N. Security Council has already asked Iran to suspend uranium enrichment. But Iran’s response to April’s deadline was to announce it had enriched reactor-grade uranium and is developing advanced centrifuges to do more–perhaps as many as 3,000 by the end of this year.

Meanwhile, President Ahmadinejad continues to deny that the Holocaust ever happened, threatens to erase Israel from the face of the earth, taunts Mr. Bush about the coming collapse of democracy world-wide, abets the killing of Americans in Iraq, supports terror in Lebanon and elsewhere, and talks more generally about a coming conflict in which much of humanity will perish. We suppose it would serve Mr. Burns right if he has to negotiate with this zealot, except that the entire State Department seems almost as zealous in its pursuit of any kind of deal.

We’d like to think better, but one thing we didn’t hear yesterday from Ms. Rice was any timeline for Iran to accept her offer. Tehran will surely attempt to delay as long as possible, giving it time to build more centrifuges and further harden its nuclear facilities. Mr. Burns could soon be talking to an Iranian Le Duc Tho about the shape of the Geneva negotiating table.

Perhaps the most dispiriting part of this new diplomacy is the signal it will send to Iran’s internal opposition. The regime is wildly unpopular, but it will use this implicit U.S. recognition to show that it has earned new world respect. It will also demand that the U.S. cease its support for democrats inside the country, and voices in Europe and at State will want to do the same. We hope Mr. Bush has vetoed that kind of appeasement. We hope, too, that he’ll continue to put pressure on the mullahs by interdicting Iranian terror financing, and shipping under the Proliferation Security Initiative, where warranted.

Iran’s relentless drive for a nuclear weapon is a difficult problem, and perhaps Ms. Rice is right that direct diplomacy is essential to expose Iran’s real purposes. But given Iran’s track record, we’d say the Secretary has walked her President out on a limb where the pressure will soon build on him to make even more concessions. If this gambit fails, she’ll have succeeded mainly in giving the mullahs more time to become a terrorist nuclear power.

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