Is the Obama Administration set to reorient U.S. policy toward Iran as fundamentally as the Nixon Administration reoriented U.S. policy toward the People’s Republic of China in the early 1970s?
The chances of this happening increased this week after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Washington is ready for bilateral talks if Tehran is “ever ready.”
Speaking at a gala dinner for American and Israeli officials, experts and diplomats at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy on Friday night, Clinton stressed the Obama administration is prepared for bilateral talks with the Islamic Republic.
For now, she said Washington is working with members of the so-called P-5+1 group of major powers -- Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States -- to resume talks with Iran about its nuclear program.
Responding to a question from the audience on Iran after delivering her opening remarks, Clinton said:
“We are deeply engaged in consultations right now with our P-5+1 colleagues, looking to put together a presentation for the Iranians at the next meeting that does make it clear we’re running out of time, we’ve got to get serious, here are issues we are willing to discuss with you, but we expect reciprocity.
“Now, I would also add that we have, from the very beginning, made it clear to the Iranians we are open to a bilateral discussion. And we have tried. You know the President tried to reach out. Dennis Ross is here. He was instrumental in those first two years in trying to create some kind of opportunity for dialogue on the nuclear issue. So far there has not yet been any meeting of the minds on that. But we remain open.
“And we’ve certainly tried quite hard in the P-5+1 context to have a bilateral discussion, and they’ve not been willing to do so. But we understand that it may take pushing through that obstacle to really get them fully responsive to whatever the P-5+1 offer might be.
“Right now, we’re working on the P-5+1 and making our willingness known that we’re ready to have a bilateral discussion if they’re ever ready to engage.”
Tariq Alhomayed, the editor-in-chief of Saudi Arabia’s leading daily Asharq Alawsat is incensed by the unexpected U.S. offer, writing today:
“What will the negotiations be about? You only need to ponder Reuters’ dispatch about Mrs. Clinton’s remarks concerning America’s readiness to negotiate directly with Iran.
“The agency wrote: ‘In October, diplomats had said they were considering asking Iran for stricter limits on its nuclear program in exchange for an easing of sanctions in a long-shot approach aimed at yielding a solution that has eluded them for a decade. One option could be for each side to put more on the table -- both in terms of demands and possible rewards -- than in previous meetings in a bid to break the stalemate…
“It is important to underscore the words ‘demands’ and ‘rewards’ because they are key. Among Iran’s principal demands and rewards is to have a role in the region at the expense of our [pan-Arab] nation and interests. That’s exactly what Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad proposed during his last trip to New York. He said he could envisage Iranians and Americans cooperating to maintain the security of the Arabian Gulf.
“Of course, the Iranians had previously mentioned [cooperation in] Afghanistan and Pakistan. That is an open secret.
“Tehran is tirelessly active throughout the region, trying to enhance its negotiating position. The Arabs concerned, on the other hand, are busy tackling flashpoints instigated by Iranian hands.
“The answer to the question (What will the negotiations be about?) is simple: Iran and the United States will haggle over our heads, over the region, and of course over the Gulf. Sadly, this is absolutely the case. That is Iran’s strategic objective: hegemony by means of nuclear capabilities or negotiations.
“America’s conduct is lax and focused exclusively on the security of Israel.
“The Americans wish to proceed at minimal risk. It is a shortsighted view, for which they will pay sooner or later. Are the Arabs generally and the Gulfites in particular aware?”
I must say Clinton may have fired the opening shot for the so-called “Grand Bargain” that would put all the principal bilateral differences between Washington and Tehran on the table at the same time and agree to resolve them as a package.
The Grand Bargain would for instance put on the table: Iran’s nuclear program, its support for Hezbollah and Hamas, its leverage in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and even Yemen, its ambition to resume the role of U.S.-backed policeman of the Gulf, and its hostility towards Israel.
In exchange, Iran would probably ask Washington for security guarantees, the full recognition of its legitimate interests, influence and status in the region, the lifting of investment, financial and trade sanctions, accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO), and a promise never to push for regime change.