George W. Bush's About-Face on Iran
The United States is taking a very important step in Iran's direction by involving itself directly in negotiations over nuclear issues.
Saturday, the State Department's No. 3, William Burns, will participate in the meeting in Switzerland between Javier Solana and Iranian negotiator, Saed Jalili.
The American diplomat's presence is unprecedented. It will not be symbolic only. It's at the Saturday meeting in Geneva that the Iranians will give their formal response to the Western proposals Solana had presented in Tehran in July.
For European diplomacy, which is the source of the efforts towards a negotiated solution, the fact that the United States is involving itself so visibly is a great success. It addresses a very clear message to the Iranians as to the seriousness of a diplomatic undertaking they could question as long as Washington kept its distance.
Nonetheless, Americans and Iranians still assert that their positions have not changed. Tehran still refuses to stop uranium enrichment, the precondition established by the United States and the five other countries involved (France, Germany, Great Britain, Russia and China) for real negotiations. Washington proclaims that additional sanctions will be imposed if Tehran refuses to stop enrichment and negotiate.
Nonetheless, it remains the case that the American administration has effected an about-face: it agrees to participate in discussions - although these are presented as preliminary - even before Iran submits to its conditions.
If the United States makes such a gesture, it's in the hope of seeing the Iranians grab the opportunity. Western inducements for stopping enrichment will have aroused an internal debate in Tehran that should be fed by betting on the most conciliating voices winning out.
Six months before stepping down, George W. Bush is distancing - at least for the moment - the prospects of another war in the Middle East. His gesture favors relaxation on the oil markets where speculation is inflaming the price per barrel. Above all, it must be seen in the context of the electoral campaign in the United States. Negotiating with Iran is a demand Democratic candidate Barack Obama has put forward. By taking the initiative, the Republican administration cuts the grass out from under his feet and promotes John McCain.
After the American about-face, it's up to the Iranians to play. Now they may be conciliatory without losing face. "It's possible to have discussions with the United States on different subjects in the near future," Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared Monday evening, objecting only to any preconditions.
The Islamic Republic wants to be acknowledged by the United States as an indispensable interlocutor. It can seize the opportunity now or wait for the next American president, but then the escalation in tensions could quickly resume.