US Mediator Will Attend International Talks with Iran

| Tue Jul. 15, 2008 9:09 PM EDT

In an historic development, US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William J. Burns will attend international talks with Iran on its nuclear program, to take place this weekend in Geneva. The Washington Post reports:

In a significant departure from longstanding policy, Undersecretary of State William J. Burns will join a scheduled meeting in Geneva between European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana and top Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, according to a senior State Department official.
Burns will not negotiate with the Iranians nor hold separate meetings, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the decision had not been announced. Instead, he will advance the White House's position that serious negotiations can only begin after Iran suspends its enrichment of uranium. [...]
The U.S. official said Burns would not participate in any further discussions during the freeze-for-freeze period. "This is a one-time deal," he said.

"European officials hailed the news that Burns would come to Geneva as a breakthrough, one that sends a clear message to Iran that the international community was interested in negotiating a solution to the nuclear impasse," the Post further reports. Said one European official cited by the paper, "It is a very interesting and important sign by the United States." The pro-engagement National Iranian American Council also welcomed the move.

With a lot of recent Iranian noises in different directions, some indicating they are considering going for a "freeze for freeze" offer -- in which Iran would freeze further installations on its nuclear enrichment program (but not suspend enrichment) and the UN would freeze further sanctions for a six week "pre-negotiations" period -- Burns' forthcoming presence in Geneva signals to Iran that Washington would actually support such a deal. It would also seem to signify that for now anyhow, Bush continues to entrust the major thrust of his administration's second term Iran policy to its relatively more pragmatic wing, led by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

If Iran and the internationals, joined by the US, are even able to get to the "freeze for freeze" six week prenegotiation period, how will Washington proceed if Iran demands some face-saving way around a total halt to uranium enrichment activities? Former US diplomat Thomas Pickering and colleagues have a proposal.