A Glance at Different Dimensions of US Presence in 5+1 Talks with Iran

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Mahmoud Reza Golshanpazhooh

On Tuesday (July 15, 2008), some news reports said the US President George W. Bush has authorized William Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs and the State Department's third-ranking diplomat, who is also in charge of Iran’s nuclear dossier, to participate in the Geneva meeting of 5+1 with Iran (July 19). The meeting was initially scheduled to be held in the presence of Javier Solana, EU foreign policy chief, as well as representatives from China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany to hear Iran’s views on the 5+1 proposed package, handed last month demanding Tehran to suspend uranium enrichment in return for a series of concessions.

In the opinion of almost all the news sources as well as experts, the US decision to maintain a presence in the Geneva talks was important because until then Washington insisted that it would not attend even preliminary talks with Iranian officials as long as Tehran continued uranium enrichment. Meanwhile, IRI Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki at a press conference in Damascus had a positive assessment of the US decision to participate in Iran’s nuclear talks and said that Tehran welcomed constructive cooperation in Saturday’s talks.

Comments by American Officials

Reacting to these analyses, the American officials have described the new decision a “tactical change” which aims to send the message to Tehran and others that Washington is serious about finding a diplomatic solution to the current impasse.

In the latest position-taking, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said: "The United States doesn't have any permanent enemies." She stressed: "And we hope this signal we're sending, that we fully support the track that Iran could take for a better relationship with the international community, is one the United States stands fully behind." Rice called the move "a strong signal to the entire world that we have been very serious about this diplomacy and we will remain very serious about this diplomacy".

"But it should be very clear to everyone that the United States has a condition for the beginning of negotiations with Iran, and that condition remains the verifiable suspension of Iran's enrichment and reprocessing activities," Rice said.1

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Rice saw it as a "smart step" to depart from usual policy and send senior diplomat William Burns to Geneva for talks with Iran along with other major powers. "It sends a strong signal to the world and it sends a strong signal to the Iranian government that the United States is committed to diplomacy," McCormack told reporters.

McCormack said the president and his national security team decided only recently to send Burns to the meeting. McCormack said Burns will be under strict orders to listen to what Iran has to say but not engage in one-on-one discussions with the Iranian negotiator. Burns will also hammer home the point that any direct talks between the United States and Iran will occur only after Iran suspends its enrichment program, McCormick said.

"Iran needs to suspend its uranium enrichment and reprocessing related activities. Should they take that single step, the United States and its partners in the P5+1 will meet with the Iranian delegation any time, any place, anywhere to talk about a variety ... of subjects, but certainly our focus will be on the Iranian nuclear program," McCormack said. McCormack brushed aside criticism that the United States is giving up too much to Iran. "Is this a new tactic? Yes. Does it send a signal? Yes. Is the substance [of the U.S. position] any different? No," McCormack said.

White House spokesperson Ms. Dana Perino, commenting on the decision to send Burns to Geneva, said: “Nothing has changed in that regard… The disincentives are the sanctions if they don't accept the offer.” And the State Department certainly described it as a one-time meeting, she said.

In reply to a question “if it's all right now, why haven't you been willing to do it before” she said: “Our beef is with the regime itself. We haven't done so before because the timing wasn't right to do so. We believe the timing is right now to go and underscore the unity of the international community that Iran must suspend its nuclear uranium enrichment, and then we can talk about negotiations from there.” 2

It is to be noted that a few days earlier (July 9) Burns made a statement before the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives about Iran. Although Burns presented a negative analysis about the current and future situation of the IRI, but he also stated: “As Secretary Rice said earlier this year, "America has no permanent enemies, we harbor no permanent hatreds. Diplomacy, if properly practiced, is not just talking for the sake of talking. It requires incentives and disincentives to make the choice clear to those with whom you are dealing that you will change your behavior if they are willing to change theirs."

“That is the kind of approach… that may or may not produce results on Iran, with whom we have had a relationship burdened by deep-seated grievances and suspicions, and a long history of missed opportunities and crossed signals.”3

A Glance at Commentaries and Analyses

In an article published on Thursday, July 17, under the title “Iran and U.S. Signaling Chance of Deal”, Washington Post said “in a break with long-standing policy, a top US envoy will join European Union talks with Iran concerning its nuclear program.” It said President Bush's decision to shift policy and send a senior U.S. envoy to nuclear talks with Iran was made after increasing signs that Iran was open to possible negotiations and that international sanctions were having an impact on the Islamic Republic.

“For more than two years, the Bush administration has had the same bottom line: Iran must suspend its enrichment of uranium -- a route to a nuclear weapon -- before serious talks can begin. U.S. officials insisted that such a demand, also shared by European allies, had not changed, but the diplomatic lines have become sufficiently hazy that if negotiations start in earnest, Iran will also be able to claim a diplomatic victory.”4

Also, the Associated Press in an analysis called the move “a break with past policy.”

The London-based Times newspaper in its Thursday issue called the decision a “U-turn in Bush policy”.5

The Voice of America too said the move represented a change in America’s longstanding policy.6

Los Angeles Times said: “The initiative reflects the Bush administration's willingness to bend long-standing policies as it tries to eke out progress on its major foreign policy challenges in its final months in office. The Bush administration has already been gradually moving away from its declared policy of shunning Iran.”7

In its July 17th issue, The Economist calls it a “surprising move” and wonders “Why America is sending a top man to talk directly to the Iranians.”

It said: “The first time America has fielded so senior an official for direct talks with Iran on nuclear matters (though lower-ranking ones have talked about Iraq, and America is musing about sending a couple of diplomats back to Tehran after an absence of 30 years). And the first time Iran has not simply backed away at such a revolutionary prospect.”


The presence of the US representative in direct 5+1 talks with Iran is a major development irrespective of any conclusion. However, whether this development should be regarded a victory or challenge for Iran’s nuclear policy is an issue which requires special care away from any haste.

Immediately after announcing Burns’ participation in the talks, the US administration entered the field with full diplomatic strength to make it clear that its new policy has several features:

1.    To show that America has good intentions;

2.    To show that the Bush administration is practically committed to diplomacy;

3.    To show Washington’s solidarity and coordination with its allies or as the American officials have been trying to imply over the past few years, with the international community;

4.    To show that this new policy does not mean lifting the condition of uranium suspension to make start of talks possible.

In fact, the US is trying to take a few steps forward by taking one step back. In other words, if the negotiations fail, the US would have shown its commitment to diplomacy and given an ultimatum to the world public opinion. And if the talks do not fail, by reiterating its early condition of uranium suspension, restrict the room for Iran’s maneuvering. It seems that the emphasis by White House spokesperson Dana Perino that it would be a one-time meeting clearly demonstrates this US policy.

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