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Nukes Overshadow US-Iran Talks

White House spokesman Scott McClellan.
by Martin Sieff
UPI Senior News Analyst
Washington (UPI) Mar 21, 2006
Iran's willingness to talk to the United States about Iraq probably was as big a surprise in Tehran as it was in Washington. Bush policymakers, administration sources have told UPI, remain concerned that the Iranian offer may be just another ploy to play for time while their nuclear development program roars ahead regardless.

The United States insists that any talks with Iran will only be to express U.S. concern and displeasure over their Iraq meddling. White House spokesman Scott McClellan said last week "the sole purpose" of such talks would be to "reiterate the concern we have stated publicly" over Iran's interference in Iraq.

"Any talks with Iran would be specifically for us to reiterate the concern we have expressed about their activities in Iraq ... we have repeatedly called on Iran to play a helpful role in Iraq" and in the region, he said.

McClellan vigorously denied any characterization that talks would be more than U.S. statement of concerns. Any negotiations on Iraq, he said, would have to be between Iran and the Iraq government. He made clear that the nuclear issue would not be discussed at such talks. The Bush administration continues to insist that the Iranian nuclear program is an international issue being handled multilaterally and through the United Nations.

From the Bush administration's perspective, the bottom line is stopping the spinning of the Iranian centrifuges separating uranium-235 capable of making nuclear weapons from uranium-238. And they believe the Iranian bottom line is finding any loophole or delaying tactic they can to play for time to allow those spinning centrifuges to go on doing their deadly work.

Also, U.S. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley made quite clear in his initial guarded and tough response to the Iranian offer Thursday that as far as Washington was concerned, Iran remained an interloper in Iraq and had no business interfering there.

U.S. Ambassador to Baghdad Zalmay Khalilzad appears to take the Iranian offer a lot more seriously than Hadley. This may well be because he is far better informed about the increasing clout the Iranians wield both in Baghdad and across southern Iraq.

However, even before the exploratory talks between the two ideological enemies and deeply mutually suspicious governments begin, it can be said that the odds against them succeeding are high.

This is not because any new détente or even just defusing of tensions and conflicts would be unwelcome in either capital. The United States and Iran potentially have a very great to gain out of coming to some kind of understanding over Iraq, where they both have enormous interests.

But although the United States has made clear that any talks would only be held over Iraq -- and would be highly limited at that -- the shadow hanging over them is the still unresolved issue of Iran's nuclear program.

The Bush administration remains utterly determined to get Iran to stop that program in its tracks and forswear any effort to acquire its own nuclear deterrent. The Iranian government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad remains equally implacable in its determination to push ahead with the program and get that deterrent. And it appears to enjoy broad consensus support in Iran, even from almost all elements who are skeptical or opposed to the hard-line Ahmadinjad regime on other issues.

The Bush administration remains determined to freeze Iran out of Iraq, but it is difficult to see how it can succeed in this goal. Some 60 percent of the population of Iraq is Shiite Muslim and Tehran's influence among them, diplomatic, political and even with the Shiite paramilitary groups that are becoming ever-more-powerful across southern Iraq is growing by leaps and bounds.

With the Sunni Muslim insurgency in central Iraq continuing to flare unabated, and increasing signs that Iraq's Shiite dominated new police and military forces are getting increasingly ruthless and uncontrollable in the face of escalating insurgency attacks, Iran's moderating influence on the Shiite majority could become crucially helpful to the ever-more hard-pressed and undermanned U.S. military in Iraq -- provided Iran was willing to cooperate.

From Tehran's standpoint, it is almost certainly no surprise that their offer to talk followed so hard on the heels of the publication of the Bush administration's latest National Security Strategy Thursday. It was the first updating of the NSS in four years, and its publication dashed the hopes long-time critics of the Bush administration's tough security national policies that U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had taken the reins from U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney and U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as the main architect of U.S. national security policies.

For the new NSS did not present a softer, gentler approach emphasizing diplomacy, as Rice has often given the indirect impression that she wants to do. Instead it incorporated tougher than ever language about the need to confront Iran and it pointedly ramped up the administration's willingness to consider pre-emptive military action against perceived threats.

The language of the NSS, in fact, only makes sense in terms of an administration that has already made up its mind to confront Iran and is even prepared to use military force against it, but wants to prepare its political ground for the American people first to justify such far-reaching actions.

The Iranians' willingness to talk about Iran may well have been meant to derail that strategy. The loss of support from major European Union nations, especially France and Germany, on the nuclear issue, appears to have come as a nasty surprise to Tehran.

Its diplomats and strategists do not appear to have anticipated the victory of pro-American Chancellor Angela Merkel in German or her outspoken willingness even as the leader of a coalition government to cooperate with the United States. And they seem to have counted on a reflexive hostility from France against cooperating seriously with the United States and Britain on the nuclear issue. But instead, all the "EU3" powers -- Britain, France and Germany -- have hung tough against Iranian intransigence on the nuclear dispute and continue to work closely with the United States instead.

The very fact of the Iranian initiative suggests that the diplomatic momentum on the nuclear issue remains with the United States and its European allies -- and that the Iranians know it. But that does not justify the confidence in Washington about spurning the Iranian initiative.

U.S. policymakers should remember before they confidently charge into a serious head-on clash with Iran over its nukes that they were equally confident in going all the way to outright war with Saddam Hussein -- and three years later they are still paying an enormous price for that miscalculation.

Source: United Press International

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