WASHINGTON – The United States is taking a time out from browbeating Iran about its nuclear weapons, giving way — for now, at least — while the Europeans try to sweet-talk Iran's (search) uranium enrichment to a halt.
America's rhetorical muscling of Iran, and the Iranians' pugnacious reactions, got the world's attention. But the Europeans' offer of nuclear fuel, trade benefits and security guarantees drew a promise from Iran to suspend enrichment of uranium.
So U.S. officials retreated but warned that they might return and seek punishment from the United Nations (search) if Iran were to renege on its latest pledge.
For months, the Bush administration played either the skeptic or the naysayer — expressing doubt that the Europeans would get anyplace, or saying no to motivate Tehran to take the Europeans' proffered package of concessions.
Even in backing off, though, the administration had some tough words for Iran.
"We will see, as time goes by, if they are now finally going to comply in full. ... Iran has time and time again deceived and denied, deceived the international community," White House spokesman Scott McClellan (search) said in backing the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency's acceptance of Iranian promises.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said past violations by Iran justified having the U.N. Security Council consider action against Tehran.
He said the United States went along with the International Atomic Energy Agency's decision to accept Iran's pledge because its chief, Mohamed ElBaradei, had reported Iran was implementing its agreement with the European countries to suspend all processes related to enriching uranium.
It is up to the agency to continue its investigation, Boucher said. "We are still as skeptical of Iran as we have ever been," he said.
When will the United States and the world know that Iran is keeping its word?
"Let's remember," Boucher said, "the last time Iran junked one of these agreements, they did it by public declarations, and kicking out inspectors, and refusing visits, and breaking seals (on enrichment facilities) and the whole lot," he said. "So it was fairly obvious what Iran was doing."
Administration officials said Iran had a poor record when it came to keeping its word. They threatened to make a case against Iran before the U.N. Security Council and try punishment in place of diplomacy.
The trouble is the United States probably did not have enough votes in the council, certainly not for an oil cutoff. A Chinese veto loomed, said Cliff Kupchan, vice president of the Nixon Center in Washington
"The only way out of this is a diplomatic solution. A military option holds little promise," said Kupchan, a former Clinton administration official who is an expert on Iran. The administration "has been increasingly disposed toward giving diplomacy a chance, which could point to a major policy change," he added.
"I think both sides realize the only way back from the abyss is to find a deal both sides can live with; if uneasily, but live with," Kupchan said.
Robert Einhorn, a former State Department official who is now an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, attributed the administration's adoption of a wait-and-see stance to lacking the votes to punish Iran in the Security Council.
On top of that, he said, the administration is heavily focused on elections in Iraq.
"It doesn't want to have a crisis over Iran at this stage," Einhorn said.
If the deal with the Europeans were to slow down Iran's enrichment program, that would be a good result, Einhorn said, "and the administration will not have had to get its hands dirty by talking to Iran directly or by making concessions."
The next diplomatic test will come in mid-December when the Europeans insist on a permanent Iranian freeze.
By then, the Bush administration will consider whether to offer Iran the guarantees against attack it seeks,which already have been offered North Korea, and whether the bad cop should talk directly to the suspect.