Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Iran Wants to Talk

NYT Editorial

If things keep going as they are going now, Iran is likely to have nuclear weapons sometime during the next decade. That is a truly chilling prospect if Iran continues to be ruled by fanatics committed to exporting Islamic revolution, destroying Israel and settling scores with the West.

Yet none of the strategies now being discussed internationally seem likely to get Iran to change course. The incentives that Europe can offer on its own appear too limited to tempt Iran into giving up its nuclear plans. The mild sanctions that seem to be the most Russia and China are willing to consider at this point are too painless to make much of an impression. And the few military options realistically available are likely to do more harm than good.

This bleak outlook for addressing a problem that is far too serious to be ignored argues for exploring a radically different approach: direct talks between Washington and Tehran in which Iran would be offered a wide-ranging package of economic inducements and security assurances in exchange for completely and verifiably abandoning all programs capable of producing nuclear bomb fuel. Some Iranian officials are now seeking such talks, yet Washington, perversely, seems uninterested.

The Bush administration's resistance to direct talks could prove very costly to America's long-term interests. With Iran's uranium enrichment programs moving forward, time is not on Washington's side. Direct talks with Iran may fail to produce an acceptable agreement. But by testing Iran's willingness to bargain seriously, America could put itself in a far stronger diplomatic position to seek more effective international sanctions later.

Washington's current efforts to achieve a meaningful United Nations resolution do not seem to be getting anywhere. A meeting was held in London last week to move the five permanent members of the Security Council closer to agreement, but served mainly to underscore their differences. China and Russia still argue that diplomatic options are not exhausted and so it is premature to discuss punitive sanctions. Even European allies like Germany believe that direct talks between Washington and Tehran could lead to a breakthrough.

Without Russian and Chinese support in the Security Council, the United States is limited to taking symbolic steps like joint American and European banking restrictions. These are not likely to make much of an impression on a country that is raking in some $300 million a day in oil revenues.

The only sanctions that stand a serious chance of moving Tehran would be a worldwide ban on buying Iranian oil. It could be a lot easier to persuade Russia and China to enforce such a ban if Washington agreed to hold direct talks with Iran and it was Iranian intransigence that made them break down. Even better, the talks just might succeed.

Unless the Bush administration eases its stubborn opposition to direct talks, it is hard to see what is going to stop the eventual emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran.

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