In a surprising development in the tense American-Iranian relationship, the US announced this week that it would send a high-level State Department official to attend talks with Iranian nuclear negotiators in Switzerland over the weekend. This unexpected policy turn comes after a tense, saber rattling summer during which the US, Israel, and Iran have traded threats, staged war games, and tested weapons. But observers suggest that the shift in the US's longstanding tactic of isolating Tehran may be motivated by a desire to ensure that other countries such as China and Russia do not make too many concessions to Iran during the negotiations.
The New York Times reports that the decision to send Undersecretary of State William Burns to Saturday's negotiations in Switzerland will be the highest-level contact between US and Iranian officials since 1979, when revolutionary students seized the US Embassy in Tehran and took 52 diplomats hostage for 444 days. Sending Mr. Burns to the meeting represents a major two-pronged policy shift, the news analysis suggests.
First, the Bush administration has decided to abandon its longstanding position that it would meet face to face with Iran only after the country suspended its uranium enrichment, as demanded by the United Nations Security Council.
Second, an American partner at the table injects new importance to the negotiating track of the six global powers confronting Iran – France, Britain, Germany, Russia, China and the United States – even though their official stance is that no substantive talks can begin until uranium enrichment stops.
The move comes at a time when escalating US-Iran rhetoric is peppered with mixed signals that have created conditions for both parties to come away from the negotiating table with a claim to victory, reports The Washington Post.
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 yesterday 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.
Iran last week sent its own mixed signals, test-firing long-range missiles in the Persian Gulf while appearing conciliatory on possible negotiations.
While the American media were focused on the new US role in this weekend's nuclear negotiations, the Guardian broke the news that the US intends to announce next month the opening of an American interests section in Tehran. It will be the first US diplomatic post in Iran since the two countries cut ties after the 1979 hostage crisis.
The US plans to establish a diplomatic presence in Tehran for the first time in 30 years as part of a remarkable turnaround in policy by President George Bush.
The Guardian has learned that an announcement will be made in the next month to establish a US interests section – a halfway house to setting up a full embassy. The move will see US diplomats stationed in the country.
The news of the shift by Bush who has pursued a hawkish approach to Iran throughout his tenure comes at a critical time in US-Iranian relations. After weeks that have seen tensions rise with Israel conducting war games and Tehran carrying out long-range missile tests, a thaw appears to be under way.
The surprising twin changes in US policy came a week after Iranian missile tests near the strategic Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf sent world oil prices skyrocketing to 1$47 a barrel. After the decision to send a US diplomat to the talks was announced, oil prices dropped by $4.14, reports Agence France-Presse.
"This is the most significant US diplomatic contact since the 1979 Islamic revolution, and represents a dramatic shift in US foreign policy. For our purposes, it will certainly take some of the force out of a major source of the geopolitical premium in oil prices," said John Kilduff, an analyst at MF Global.
The price reduction built on a decline of $6.44 the day before, spurred by an unexpected growth in US oil reserves.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told reporters from the country's state media that the government has yet to receive an official request from the US to open an interests section, but added that he welcomed American diplomats to Iran, according to the Tehran Times.
President Mahmud Ahmadinejad declared on Sunday that he welcomes a U.S. proposal to set up a diplomatic outpost in Iran and to establish extensive relations between Iranian and U.S. citizens.
The Islamic Republic of Iran sees no limit to the establishment of relations with the world's nations, even with the people of the United States, Ahmadinejad told reporters after Sunday's cabinet session.
"Iran welcomes any proposal for improving ties even from the White House leaders," the president asserted...
Asked about the report about opening a mission in Iran, the president said, "We have not yet received any official request in this regard."
"But Iran had previously proposed starting direct flights between the two countries so that hundreds of thousands of passengers including students, academics, and business travelers can directly fly to the two states," he added.
Some observers say that a softer approach toward Iran by the US would mirror its diplomatic efforts with North Korea, which have been less tense than the Iranian-American relationship. Much like North Korea, Iran's biggest incentive for possible nuclear disarmament is the prospect of a warmer relationship with the West, led by a better relationship with Washington.
A report in the Chicago Tribune suggests that Iran's desire for better diplomatic relations with the US explains why the policy of communicating through European go-betweens has been largely unsuccessful.
The current strategy of having the Europeans negotiate with Iran is widely seen as not having made progress, perhaps because one of the biggest incentives for Iran is the prospect of normalized relations with the United States.
"The U.S. realized that the old pattern of diplomatic negotiation, through the Europeans, was just not working," said Vali Nasr, an international politics professor at Tufts University. "Just like with North Korea, the only time things began working was when the US joined the talks. There was an acknowledgment that if you don't want war or the status quo, you have to try something new."
Gary Samore, the vice president of the Council for Foreign Relations, agrees that the decision to send Mr. Burns to the Switzerland talks represents a change in administration strategy, according to Reuters.
Another reason for sending Burns, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia and the third-ranking official in the State Department, was to ensure not too many concessions were made, particularly by players such as China and Russia that have shown more sympathy toward Tehran.
"He is there as the bad cop. There is nervousness that Solana and some of the other countries, such as China and Russia might be willing to settle for less than full suspension (of uranium enrichment)," said Gary Samore, vice president of the Council on Foreign Relations.
"The administration wants to be absolutely sure that it is a participant over the shape of this," he added.