Negotiations between Iran and the international community are shifting into a higher gear. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her fellow foreign ministers from the so-called G-8 industrialized nations agreed in Moscow this week on a set of meetings over the next two weeks which could result in finding out whether Iran will abandon its nuclear weapons program.
On July 5, the European Union's Javier Solana will meet with Ali Larijani, Iran's designated point man on the nuclear issue. The G-8 ministers, disappointed they haven't received a response to an offer of economic and energy-related incentives said, in a statement issued at the conclusion of their Moscow meeting, "We expect to hear a clear and substantive Iranian response to these proposals at the planned meeting ... on 5 July."
According to senior State Department officials, speaking to reporters on background, Rice suggested a follow-up meeting of foreign ministers on July 12 where the representatives of the international community who made the offer to Iran can assess Tehran's response.
The timing of these two meetings is meant to find out whether Tehran will give up its nuclear weapons ambitions before President Bush and other G-8 leaders gather in mid-July in St. Petersburg, Russia. Now the question is, will Iran actually give a clear answer to the offer on the table? It is hard to find an American official who has been dealing with this issue who will actually predict the Iranians will do what is being demanded. Skepticism varies among Washington's partners but the simple fact is no one seems to have a real handle on what Iran will decide. If it chooses to ignore the incentive package offered, senior American officials say the alternative is to return to the path leading to sanctions from the U.N. Security Council.
However, the real problem will be what to do if Larijani, as many expect, comes to the July 5 meeting and offers to accept part of the package but reject other parts. The Iranians have a reputation as both good diplomats and good bargainers. Even if they eventually sign on to a deal, it's unlikely they'll do it on Washington's timeline. Senior State Department officials say they expect the Iran nuclear issue to be a key part of the G-8 leaders' agenda, just as it was this week for their foreign ministers' meeting.
As of now, Rice and her top aides appear to be holding their coalition partners together despite Iranian efforts to drive a wedge between them. Whether they can continue to do so will depend on what Larijani has to say, and senior officials candidly acknowledge they're not exactly certain about the next diplomatic steps.
By Charles Wolfson