Why US is now turning to diplomacy

A UN report expected to be issued Thursday, finding Iran undeterred in its pursuit of uranium enrichment, represents the kind of collective international action the Bush administration once scoffed at. Now, it's embracing it.

The change stems in part from the administration's disenchantment with the results of its earlier go-it-alone approach. But it also suggests a growing sense within the White House that once-maligned multilateralism is getting results – on issues ranging from Iran to North Korea.

The latest example is Iran. The International Atomic Energy Agency's report on nuclear activity in Iran will find that Tehran has ignored a United Nations Security Council deadline to cease uranium enrichment by Wednesday.

Instead, the IAEA report will show that Iran has installed additional centrifuges in enrichment facilities, sources close to the IAEA work say. It will also note Iran's continuing technical problems in perfecting the process.

The report is likely to set in motion renewed debate on Iran in the Security Council, perhaps next week. Pressure is building for a second, more punitive resolution, since the regime has apparently disregarded a Dec. 24 resolution approved unanimously by the Security Council – including Tehran's political and commercial partners, Russia and China.

Whether a second resolution is ever approved, the debate will highlight a change in the Bush administration, both specifically on Iran and more broadly on the diplomatic field.

"What we're witnessing is the return of the pragmatists to US diplomacy, and it's paying off," says Joseph Cirincione, a nonproliferation expert at the Center for American Progress in Washington. "The Bush administration came in touting 'regime change' and a fundamental break with nonproliferation negotiations, but that backfired. In many ways the world ended up more dangerous."

But after a long campaign in Iraq, Iran's rise, and a nuclear test by North Korea, the US is putting new faith in diplomacy, hard bargaining, and multilateral action, he says. "It worked with Libya. It's working with North Korea. And it could work with Iran."

The change in the US approach comes amid mixed signals from the White House, on Iran in particular. Last week President Bush linked an uptick in US casualties in Iraq to more sophisticated weaponry coming from Iran, and said he planned to "do something about it." Such talk keeps alive speculation that the US may opt to move militarily against Iran's nuclear installations.

But the administration's growing reliance on diplomatic efforts is also evident on the international stage, with America's partners in particular taking note of the shift. "We have noted the evolution," says a senior European diplomat in Washington, who by protocol cannot speak on the record.

The US initially was unhappy with the Security Council resolution on Iran, which ended up with weaker sanctions than the US wanted. But after the resolution set off an immediate debate in Iran over the confrontational tactics of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, some US leaders began to have a change of heart.

"The debate it caused in Iran and the pressures inside the country on [President] Ahmadinejad changed things," says the European diplomat. "So now the feeling is, why not a second resolution?"

The Bush administration's apparent conversion to multilateralism can also be seen in Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's efforts to revive the Middle East peace process and in last week's deal with North Korea on its nuclear program. Next week, Secretary Rice's new right-hand man, John Negroponte, is travelling to northeast Asia to try to build on the goodwill stemming from the nuclear accord.

The North Korea issue shows that the Bush team has had two tracks of diplomacy all along – the go-it-alone track and a less-noted multilateral track – but has recently switched which track it emphasizes, some experts say.

"The stereotype of the Bush administration was the go-it-alone approach, and it got stuck with that in the first term largely because of the war in Iraq," says Daniel Drezner, a foreign policy expert at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Mass. "But there's always been this second track, albeit overshadowed, of trying to work in concert with others for common goals. Now that the US has become bogged down in Iraq, there is less it can do unilaterally."

The arrival of Rice, a trusted Bush aide, at the helm of State is part of the explanation for the shifting emphasis between the two tracks, Mr. Drezner says.

But the administration is also harvesting the fruits of an early diplomatic goal of tying rising world powers such as China and India into the world international system, he says. One result is an intense US effort to court India and cement its ties to the broader international community, he says.

India Wednesday said it will ban exports to Iran of materials that might be used in Tehran's nuclear program. India's statement is the latest sign of growing international alignment with the Security Council resolution.

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