What should be made of the latest mix of messages from Iran? Just over a week ago, the Iranian foreign minister responded ambiguously to a new international proposal for negotiations over Tehran's nuclear program, saying the regime was open to talks but making no mention of a condition that it freeze the program's expansion. On Wednesday and Thursday, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps made a show of firing off missiles from its arsenal, including one that it claims could reach Israel. Then on Friday, the state news agency reported that the government's top nuclear negotiator would meet in Geneva next weekend with the European Union's foreign policy chief to discuss the freeze proposal and Iran's response.




Was Iran carefully setting the stage for beginning negotiations? Or was the Guard &

the sponsor of Iran's military and terrorist activity in Iraq, Lebanon and Gaza, and the overseer of the nuclear work &

trying to undermine a possible attempt by moderates to compromise with the West? There's at least some debate within the regime about whether continued defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions ordering a suspension of uranium enrichment is worth the growing bite of sanctions. Former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati, an adviser to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has called publicly for acceptance of the talks proposal, while spokesmen of the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have dismissed the possibility of halting nuclear work.




While we don't have a definitive answer for these questions, one conclusion seems pretty clear: If Tehran rejects the latest proposal, it will show that those pushing for confrontation with the West are fully in command. That's because the latest proposal of the five Security Council members and Germany once again has lowered the bar for Iranian cooperation. Previously, the regime was required to stop uranium enrichment during negotiations on swapping the nuclear program for political and economic concessions. Now, in addition to sweetening the concession package, the six countries ask only that Tehran stop adding centrifuges to its enrichment plant, in exchange for a promise by the Security Council not to apply more sanctions. In short, Iran would be able to continue using the more than 3,000 centrifuges it already has installed to increase its stockpile of enriched uranium without fear of further sanctions, merely by agreeing to preliminary talks.




In theory the "freeze" for "freeze" arrangement would be limited to six weeks; in practice it's not hard to imagine Iran finding ways to extend it far longer. This would serve the purpose of allowing the regime to stall further action against it while continuing to advance toward building a nuclear bomb. In the past, that strategy has been the common denominator on which Iranian moderates and hard-liners could agree. So Iranian rejection of the deal would be a clear signal that three years of U.S.-backed diplomacy was dead &

and acceptance might merely mean a slower and more excruciating demise.




"" The Washington Post