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Mon, Sept. 23

Relying on talk with Iran might not work

WASHINGTON ­ "To jaw-jaw is better than to war-war,'' Winston Churchill said famously in 1954 about negotiations to end the Korean War, and the Bush administration embraced this precept in proposing talks with Iran over its nuclear program.

But recently, the Party of Jaw hit an Iranian obstacle ­ forcing all sides to consider less pleasant alternatives.

The chance of any quick breakthrough on the nuclear issue evaporated when Iranian negotiator Ali Larijani said in Brussels that Iran wasn't ready yet to answer a European-American offer of incentives in exchange for halting its nuclear program. The Bush administration had been expecting an ambiguous Iranian response, and it agreed weeks ago with its allies that it would take anything short of a clear "yes'' as a "no.'' But for administration officials who had argued for the diplomatic opening to Iran, Tehran's non-response still was a disappointment.

U.S. officials saw nothing positive in Larijani's meeting with Javier Solana, the European Union foreign policy chief. The Iranian official didn't come close to accepting the European-American proposal for talks, one knowledgeable official said, or to accepting the West's precondition that Iran halt its enrichment of uranium. This outcome was a setback, if not a surprise. Administration officials had been warning privately last week that a divided and suspicious Iran didn't yet appear ready to make significant concessions.

The Party of War waits in the wings, in Washington and Tehran, but Washington's strategy for now is one of diplomatic pressure. The first step will be to push the Iranian nuclear issue to the United Nations Security Council. Administration officials say that Russia and China had promised they would back at least some limited U.N. measures against Iran if Tehran balked at negotiations, and President Bush wanted a strong statement criticizing Iran at the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg. The Iranians appear to be counting on Russia as their secret protector, but here they may have misjudged.

U.S. officials expect a period of jockeying over the next few months ­ a long summer of pressure and counterpressure, in which the parties test and probe each other's resolve and diplomatic clout. The administration wants to avoid rhetorical bombast and American-Iranian confrontation, preferring a steady international pressure campaign that makes clear to the Iranians that they must make a choice. For that strategy to be credible, Russia will have to stand tough with America and Europe. That means Putin holds the high cards in this poker game.

The danger now, as in any diplomatic standoff, is miscalculation. For months, the Iranians have been almost dismissive of U.S. warnings ­ apparently convinced that America is so bogged down in Iraq that it lacks any real leverage against Tehran. That Iranian overconfidence is potentially dangerous. Spurning a superpower is never a good idea, especially a wounded one, and the Iranians arguably missed their best chance this week to begin making a deal that would deal with all sides' security concerns.

After 27 years of not speaking to each other, it's hardly surprising that a July wedding isn't in the cards for Mr. Great Satan and Ms. Axis of Evil. Perhaps the best outcome from the stillborn U.S. proposal for talks is that it has produced some real debate within Iran, with the clergy and the political elite mulling the proper response. That ferment will intensify this fall, when the Iranians will hold elections for their Assembly of Experts, a sometimes contentious body dominated by the clergy.

The Bush administration, in the new post-cowboy phase of its diplomacy, has made a big bet on the steadfastness of its friends and allies. It has decided, for now, to rely on the United Nations and its ability to respond seriously to the crisis posed by Iran's nuclear program. The next few weeks will show whether that bet was wise.

(E-mail David Ignatius at davidignatius@washpost.com.)

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