yesterday, condoleeza rice offered that the u.s. would engage in negotiations with iran if iran "fully and verifiably suspend its enrichment and reprocessing activities." this was touted as a kind of breakthrough--previously the bush administration had ruled out talks with the regime unless they completely dismantled their nuclear program.
at first glance the move doesn't seem all that big (suspension vs. dismantled). but it does make a difference. iran doesn't have to give up all of its bargaining chips from the get-go. and that means the talks could actually be about nuclear disarmament. the bush administration's prior stance, requiring iran to disarm before reaching the table, was equivalent to not being willing to negotiate at all. if you want to negotiate over a nuclear program and the nuclear program has to be dismantled before you reach the table, what is there to talk about? when you look at it that way, rice's statement permitting talks without complete dismantlement really are a significant step.
on the other hand, i'm suspicious. this administration is still committed to regime change in iran, i think that's what really motivates them, not the nuclear issue. and you can't negotiate over regime change with the regime you're trying to change. i don't think they have a serious interest in negotiations at all
so i wonder if the whole thing isn't a ruse. in order to have a verifiable freeze, someone has to verify it. which if iran agrees to the condition, or one like it, they have to allow international inspectors to have unfettered access to their sites. this would produce a bonanza for american intelligence about the iranian nuclear program. the reason we hear wildly different estimates about iranian nuclear capability (e.g. you can read that iran will get the bomb at any point between five minutes from now and fifteen years from now) is because we really don't seem to know all that much about the program. i suspect that lot of these estimates are really just wild guesses.
so even if the bush administration has no intention of really negotiating with the regime, rice's offer makes sense. by going to the bargaining table you're not agreeing to reach any kind of agreement there. if iran went for it, the u.s. could get the intelligence that would come with verification and then scuttle the talks at the bargaining table.
but while the u.s. had nothing to lose and intelligence to gain in the offer, the iranians have something to lose. unless the iranians nuclear program is really advanced, they have no incentive to agree to a verified freeze before getting anything else in return. their biggest bargaining chip is the uncertainty about the extent of their program. if they lift the curtain and we found out exactly where they were, we might decide that they aren't that scary after all. an uncertain threat is always a lot scarier than a certain one anyway.
which is why iran's response comes as no surprise: they say they want talks, but won't agree to a suspension. i suspect it's the verification part of the suspension they don't want.