Former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright describes the current international stand-off between the US and Iran as a "battle of ideas." And on the evidence of recent weeks, it is a battle the administration of US President George W. Bush is losing. It needs urgently to raise its game or risk being out-maneuvered by Tehran.
Albright made her comment after a White House meeting of former US secretaries of state and defense, convened by Bush in order to tap their collective wisdom on issues such as Iran and Iraq. She advised that a senior administration figure, possibly Bush himself, should make a speech clarifying US policy objectives concerning Iran, and not just those related to its nuclear activities.
Like a growing number of prominent Democrats and Republicans in Washington, Albright believes the US should hold its nose and talk directly to Tehran about all issues of mutual concern. As long as it refuses to do so, these pragmatists argue, it will find it all but impossible to convince other countries to back US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's proposed "coalition of the willing."
US political luminaries such as Richard Lugar, Republican chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, and John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential hopeful, have also publicly questioned the Bush administration's tactics. They suggest that international opinion will simply not understand a continuing US refusal to engage in face-to-face diplomacy when the stakes are so high.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan drove home this point at the weekend, suggesting that Washington's refusal to get involved in EU-Iran negotiations conducted by Britain, France and Germany was actually undermining international efforts to persuade Iran to comply with UN Security Council and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) demands.
"I have stated very clearly both in private in my contacts with the American administration and publicly that I think it is important that the US comes to the table and that it should join the European countries and Iran to find a solution," Annan said.
While the US frets over tactics and ponders its next move, Iran has been busily exploiting its advantage. Its first success came, in absentia, in the Security Council, when it became clear that Russia and China were ready to block a new resolution threatening sanctions against Iran on the nuclear issue.
US and British diplomats had been suggesting that Moscow, in particular, would come on board when push came to shove -- or would be content to abstain in any vote. That proved not to be the case, and so the resolution has been shelved pending preparation of a revamped incentives package for Iran by the EU-Three (subject of course to US approval).
The latest plan, borrowed from Marlon Brando's "Godfather" character, is to make Tehran an offer it can't refuse. What officials are calling a "very attractive package" could include political and economic carrots such as help with nuclear power station construction. The bottom line remains Iran's abandonment of its potentially bomb-related uranium enrichment activities.
But even this could be fudged if Tehran agreed, for example, to confine enrichment activities to research programs conducted under strict IAEA scrutiny and safeguards. This outcome has been privately floated by Mohammad ElBaradei, the IAEA chief. The package was expected to be finalized at a meeting of the Security Council permanent five members plus Germany in London at the end of last week.