Thursday, June 01, 2006

An Answer to the Letter

In a very major policy shift, Washington has now said that it is prepared to sit down on the negotiating table with Teheran and discuss also the nuclear issue.

This was - as I have written - somewhat predictable, but is nevertheless a major move. There was a risk of Teheran capturing the high ground in the debate with its letters and initiatives.

There are important caveats in the initiative.

Washington will sit down together with London, Paris and Berlin. And that's a wise move. It presents a broader but still obviously united front.

And the demand is that Teheran suspends enrichment and reprocessing activities. This is the "foundation stone" of the initiative.

Fair enough. The EU3 are saying the same thing, although they talk about enrichment. I have not seen reprocessing being an issue - I'm not aware of any signs of them doing that.

The initial reaction from Teheran has been critical rather than negative, and has tried to avoid taking a clear stand on the conditions for talks. The Iranian Foreign Minister Mottaki said that Iran "will not give up our nation's natural right" to enrichment, but what is demanded isn't really that they give up what they consider their right, only that they don't exercise it. That's a huge difference.

After some maneuvering I would not be surprised that a formulae of technical suspension or something of that sort is found.

In effect, we are now entering a period of discreet negotiations over the conditions for negotiations.

And that's progress - of sorts.

Not everyone in the US is happy with what the Washington Post describes as "perhaps the biggest foreign policy shift" of the Bush presidency.

In its editorial, Wall Street Journal was lukewarm - at best - in its support for the move:

"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."

Time will tell who's right.

But not to explore all options in a situation as serious as this can be sound policy.