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The Engagement is Official: US, Iran in Nuclear Talks

Related Post: A Beginners' Guide to Engagement with Iran

us-iran-flags2The  initial news last night was that Undersecretary of State William Burns was in London in  "5+1" talks with Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China on Iran's nuclear programme. Then came the revelation. Iran will soon be there as well: Washington is dropping its policy of no direct discussions with Tehran. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made the brief announcement, "There's nothing more important than trying to convince Iran to cease its efforts to obtain a nuclear weapon." You can choose the political spin on this from different newspapers. For both The New York Times and The Washington Post, "U.S. to Join Iran Talks Over Nuclear Program". For The Daily Telegraph, desperate to prove Tehran is giving way, "Iran Offered New Nuclear Talks". So let's leave it to a State Department official to make the concise summary, "It was kind of silly that we had to walk out of the room" whenever Iranians were nearby.

While Iranian media have highlighted the US change in position, there has been no official Iranian reaction to the news. However, the 5+1 meeting and Clinton's statement follow contact between US and the Iran at The Hague conference on Afghanistan. Ensuing signals indicated that Iran was happy to take up engagement: last week President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Tehran will shake an "honest hand".

This American decision confirms a significant break from the Bush Administration's attempt to isolate Iran. First, Bush officials broke off direct contact with Tehran in May 2003, rejecting an Iranian letter which offered detailed talks. A double game followed: Washington would push for more economic sanctions against Iran while European countries persisted in negotations. When those negotiations were close to a breakthrough, the US Government would pull back from any agreement, and the finger-wagging --- from both the US and Iran --- would resume.

Perhaps more importantly, the offer of direct talks may put Obama's military commanders in their place. Last week both Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and General David Petraeus, the head of US Central Command, pointedly warned that Israel would be attacking an operating Iranian nuclear facility. Vice President Joe Biden finally stepped in publicly, telling CNN that Israel "would be ill-advised" to carry out an airstrike.

The Obama Administration has also made this move despite (possibly because of) reports that President Ahmadinejad will today announce that the nuclear plant at Bushehr is now active. And it has done so despite yesterday's news that Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi, detained in Iran since January, has been charged with espionage.

This is the clearest signal that Obama, in contrast to his predecessor, has decided that it is better to live with an Iran with a nuclear programme rather than to pursue confrontation. Doing so, Washington hopes to reap the benefit of Iranian assistance --- or non-interference --- with American initiatives from Afghanistan to the Middle East.

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