U.S. Policy Reversal on Iran

One week after military maneuvers raised fears of war and the price of oil, a senior US official will meet with the Iranian nuclear negotiator. A deal may be in the works.

Twenty-two years ago, former National Security Advisor Robert "Bud" McFarlane carried a cake, a bible and pistols to Tehran in a failed Reagan administration effort to trade weapons for Iranian aide to the Nicaraguan contras. Now, another senior official in a Republican administration is hoping for better luck. In a stunning announcement July 16, the White House disclosed that Undersecretary of State William J. Burns will travel to Geneva this weekend to sit face-to-face with Iranian nuclear negotiator Said Jalili.

Tests of missiles have yielded to tests of diplomacy. Burns will meet Jalili with European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana serving as interlocutor. The subject will be a proposed "freeze-freeze" deal: Iran would halt further expansion of its uranium enrichment program; in turn, the US and Europe will halt further sanctions on Iran.

This is a dramatic reversal of Bush policy. Just two months ago, President Bush warned that negotiations with Iran would be "appeasement." Bush officials had said they would meet with Iranian representatives only after Iran fully suspended its enrichment program. Iran had said that suspension would be the subject of the negotiations, not a precondition.

Bush blinked. He has dropped the precondition. Suspension might still be possible, but the "freeze-freeze" could be the half-way point that allows serious negotiations to resolve this now five-year stand off.

It mirrors the shift that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice engineered in 2006 that reversed a similar policy towards North Korea. Then China served as mediator, orchestrating a meeting in Beijing between Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill and the North Korean negotiator. This was exactly the face-to-face talks Korea had been asking for and the U.S. had denied. It worked. Twenty months later, North Korea is blowing up its nuclear reactor, not nuclear bombs.

The announcement also comes at the heels of major foreign policy addresses by both Presidential candidates. Sen. Obama laid out his plan for "aggressive, principled and direct diplomacy" with Tehran; Senator John McCain rejected the idea. Both the U.S. and Iran seem to be taking a page out of the Obama play book: Bush by sending Burns and Tehran by heeding Obama's warning to "negotiate now -- by waiting, they will only face mounting pressure."

Conservative hardliners are sure to scream betrayal, as they did on North Korea. But the seeming ascendance of the pragmatist approach within the administration may save President Bush from adding to an already dismal record of foreign policy failure.