Don't look now, but it seems that George W. Bush is committing diplomacy. The New York Times reports today that Bush has agreed to join France, Britain, and Germany in their nuclear-arms talks with Iran. This marks a major reversal for Bush, who until now has refused to negotiate with any Iranian officials, arguing that to do so would reward them for bad behavior.
Not only is Bush climbing on board the negotiations, he's doing so in a smart way. Bush will go along with the European plan to offer Iranians economic inducements—selling them commercial airplane parts, supporting the country's entry into the World Trade Organization. But in order to get these benefits, the Iranians must agree not merely to suspend but permanently to halt the enrichment of uranium. And the Europeans have agreed that if Iran turns down the offer after a certain amount of time, they will join Bush in calling for sanctions at the U.N. Security Council.
This arrangement amounts to a mutual recognition of two key facts that both parties have tried until now to ignore. Bush apparently recognizes that the talks cannot succeed unless the United States is a party; only Washington can offer the range of benefits and the guarantees of security that might lure Iran into forgoing its nuclear ambitions. At the same time, the Europeans recognize that no accord can be reached unless they appear serious about invoking sanctions in the event the talks do break down; until now, no one has believed the Europeans, especially the French, would forgo revenue from Iranian trade.
Before, in other words, the United States wouldn't offer carrots, and the Europeans wouldn't threaten sticks. Now they seem on the same track to deal both. A starker way to put it: Before, the talks couldn't be serious; now, they might be.
I write this with some hesitation. Two or three times in the past couple of years, I've declared, on the basis of a vague remark or slight shift, that the Bush administration seemed to have "come to its senses" in seeking a diplomatic solution to stop North Korea's nuclear-weapons program—only to be proved wrong a few days later. But today's news about talks isn't a matter of reading tea leaves. It's a flashing neon billboard.
So, does this mean the crisis is nearly over? Alas, not yet. The Iranian negotiators can be expected to do everything they can to drive wedges between the Americans and the Europeans, taking half-steps in the hope that the Europeans deem them sufficient to justify postponing the talks' deadline. Part of today's agreement is that the Europeans promise they won't do this. (The Associated Press quotes from a five-page document to this effect.) Since the deal threatens sanctions—a less extreme recourse than the invasion that was threatened in the showdown with Iraq—maybe they'll keep their pledge. Still, it's hard to believe there won't be any internecine eruptions.
More serious still, it's not clear the Iranians will accept any deal that requires them to halt enriching uranium. It may be that, for any number of reasons, they just want some nukes. My guess is that the Bush administration's hawks (possibly including the president) hold this view, and they're going along with the Europeans on the assumption that the talks won't go anywhere and that, at least, they'll have France and Britain—permanent members of the Security Council—committed to pushing for sanctions.
The hawks may be right on this score. But if they are, and if some kind of action (sanctions or otherwise) is needed to keep Iran from going nuclear, it would be a good thing for the world—and it would put more potent pressure on Iran—if the United States had the full support of powerful allies. Sen. John Kerry made exactly this point during last fall's presidential campaign.
Yes, George W. Bush is flip-flopping. And everyone should be glad of it. If it works out well in Iran, maybe he'll flip-flop on North Korea next.