On its surface, the U.S. initiative was traditional diplomacy. Rice offered both carrots and sticks: “We are agreed with our European partners on the essential elements of a package containing both the benefits if Iran makes the right choice, and the costs if it does not.” But the devil is in the details. The stick—if Iran remains noncompliant—is a vague European and Russian commitment to consider sanctions at the United Nations. What specific sanctions? Not decided. What time frame? Undetermined.
Should Washington trust European and Russian sincerity when it comes to a fundamental threat to U.S. national security? In Bush’s calculation, the worst outcome would be for the Islamic Republic of Iran to possess nuclear bombs. For many Europeans, though, the idea that the U.S. might act forcefully to deny Iran nuclear weapons is a greater threat. And so they encourage an administration more eager to please the international audience than lead it to once again entangle itself in multilateral obfuscation.
It is tempting to believe engagement can succeed, but precedent suggests otherwise. In early 1992, Berlin inaugurated a policy of critical engagement with Iran, believing that dialogue and concession could draw the Islamic Republic into the norms of international behavior. Soon after, on September 17, 1992, Iranian government assassins murdered four Iranian dissidents. On April 10, 1997, a German court found that a committee composed of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and intelligence minister Ali Fallahian had ordered the hit. Rather than moderate, European concessions convinced Iranian leaders that they could get away with murder. They did.
If Rice’s offer was just a misstep—to be forgotten like Madeleine Albright’s—then no harm done. But Rice set a precedent. Her offer may have sought to solve one problem, but it signaled other nations that the path to concession and recognition lies through proliferation, not compliance. Washington’s handicap has always been the triumph of short-term fixes over long-term strategy. Why should any country voluntarily forfeit a nuclear program as South Africa and Brazil once did, or nuclear weapons as did the Ukraine and Kazakhstan?
I'd like to think that Rice's maneuver shortens the US diplomatic lines and is a precursor to some serious action. However, I fear that the Bush administration feels so out of capital that this is best we can manage.