ANALYSIS / Are U.S.-Iran Ties Undergoing Significant Change?

Even though the military option seems to be further removed, it is still on the agenda in the U.S. and Israel.

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Events during the past month suggest that relations between the United States and Iran may be undergoing a significant change. Each development is not dramatic on its own, but as a whole they formulate a trend.

Iran has signaled that it intends to find a way out of the nuclear impasse. This began with a clear statement by Ali Akbar Velayati, adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on foreign affairs. Velayati said that Iran should accept the "package" offered by the group of "five plus one" - the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany, through the European Union official charged with foreign policy, Javier Solana.

For its part, the U.S. sent to the talks with Iran yesterday the number three diplomat at the State Department, William Burns. To this are added reports on the possible opening of a U.S. interests section in Tehran, a first following nearly 30 years of no diplomatic ties between the two countries.

Do these signs suggest a willingness by the two sides to undertake genuine changes in their positions? At this stage, it is still difficult to say.

Iran continues the delay tactics that have characterized its conduct on the nuclear question over the past six years. It disseminates contradictory statements, signals a willingness to compromise and flexibility, but in the end sticks to its position, thus gaining time, allowing the centrifuges at the uranium enrichment plant in Natanz to continue producing, gram by gram, the fissile material needed to produce a nuclear weapon. Time is running out, with at most 18 months left before Iran reaches the "technological threshold," when it would master the technology to produce its first nuclear device.

Yesterday, too, Iran continued its stalling tactics, delaying its response on whether it was willing to accept the incentives package.

It is also hard to believe that as his tenure is reaching its end, President George Bush and his administration have seriously adopted a conciliatory stance on Iran.

It may indeed be, as some analysts have argued, that the camp headed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has won out over the neoconservatives led by Vice President Dick Cheney.

But it is also possible that Bush has adopted the tactic of hiding another intention. He may be willing to give the impression that he is trying to compromise, in order to prepare public opinion, at home and abroad, prior to toughening the measures against Tehran.

Bush might be aiming to signal that he does not reject diplomacy as a way of resolving the crisis, even though he does not believe in its efficacy. In the end, he will be able to argue that even the most conciliatory offer was not sufficient to assuage Iran. Perhaps this way he will be able to convince the international community to impose tougher sanctions on Iran, banning exports of fuel to it and possibly imposing a naval blockade. Such a blockade, already proposed in a petition signed by most members of Congress, will constitute a casus belli for Iran.

In other words, even though in the past two weeks the military option seems to be further removed from us, it is still on the agenda in the U.S. and Israel.