Talking to Iran

June 02, 2006

When the Bush administration offered this week to talk directly with Iran over Tehran's refusal to abandon its nuclear program, it renewed a chance to settle this matter peacefully. The U.S. involvement also helped forge a strong new package of incentives that has the support of the major international players, including China and Russia. That should get Iran's attention.

The invitation to talk comes with a condition - the Iranians must halt all nuclear activity - that the Iranians can't cavalierly dismiss. The condition was necessary; Iran, after all, hasn't been truthful the past 18 years about the existence or extent of its nascent nuclear program. If Iran is genuinely interested in resolving this standoff, suspending its nuclear program is the way to start.

In extending its invitation, the United States did an about-face in its long-standing policy against open-ended, direct talks with Iran. Washington had little choice really because it has repeatedly said that it was committed to a diplomatic solution. But, more to the point, its call for stronger measures against Iran had failed to win international support.

The very real prospect that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons should be a cause of great concern to the international community. Iran's duplicity over the years has rightly raised alarms about its true intentions for wanting nuclear material. Its continued drive to enrich uranium - and brash pronouncements of purported success - have intensified the debate. And Iran's past support of terrorist organizations stands out as yet another key reason to worry.

But the Bush administration and its allies had not been able to persuade Russia and China, two key members of the U.N. Security Council, to support sanctions against Iran for its refusal to give up its nuclear program or cooperate. And sanctions wouldn't have the intended effect if two of Iran's biggest trading partners weren't part of the deal.

Something had to give to move the process forward. By offering to join new talks, the United States can say it went the extra mile to resolve the standoff. Now the question is whether Iran will accept the invitation. The package of incentives announced late yesterday by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her European, Russian and Chinese colleagues also includes possible sanctions and agreement on a consultation process among the Security Council members should Iran refuse to cooperate.

Russia and China should use their influence to persuade the Iranians to sit down, despite Tehran's refusal to bow to conditions. The United States took a step in the right direction and so should Iran. The Iranian president has said he wanted to talk to the United States - his chance is now.

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