The Bush administration and its European allies have given Iran a two-week deadline to respond to a proposal that they freeze the expansion of their uranium enrichment program for six weeks in exchange for a US agreement to freeze the expansion of sanctions for six weeks. During the six week "freeze for freeze," "pre-negotiations" would take place that would lay the groundwork for formal talks.
On the face of it, a six-week freeze in the expansion of enrichment seems like a small concession. The catch in this proposal, from the point of view of many in Iran, is that the US has not dropped its insistence that for formal talks to start, the Iranians must suspend enrichment completely; nor has the US signaled any flexibility on its goal for formal talks, which is that the Iranians agree to accept the end of uranium enrichment on Iranian soil under any circumstances, forever.
So, from the point of view of many in Iran, the proposal for talks is a trap. Since the goal of the talks, from the Bush administration's point of view, is that Iran suspend enrichment forever, and since suspension of enrichment is a US precondition for the talks, by starting the talks according to its precondition the US achieves its goal temporarily, and the US continues to achieve its goal so long as the talks go on. Some Iranians fear that once talks commence under the precondition of suspending enrichment, it will be the US that has the incentive to delay. The talks can go on indefinitely without reaching any agreement and the US will have achieved its objective. If the Iranians break off the talks out of frustration that the US isn't negotiating in good faith and resume enrichment, the Bush administration will blame Iran, and there is every reason to believe that the Bush administration's lapdogs in Britain, France and Italy will follow suit.
But there is a saying among chess players: the best way to refute a gambit to accept it. You can look into the position more deeply than your opponent, see the trap that he has set, and walk right into it, knowing that around the trap your opponent has set you have constructed an even better trap.
There is a fundamental weakness in the Bush administration's position, and that is that most people don't realize that the Bush administration's actual position is that Iran must not be allowed to enrich uranium, ever, under any conceivable circumstances. People don't know that is the Bush administration's position because the Bush administration has put up a fog around it, and the reason they've put up a fog around it is that there is no basis for the Bush administration's position in any international agreement or treaty.
But if real negotiations started, the eyes of the international media would be focused on the talks. It would no longer be possible for the Bush administration to conceal its inflexibility on the question of enrichment. If it became clear, as it well might, that it was the Bush administration's intransigence on the question of enrichment that was preventing the talks from reaching a successful conclusion, the Bush administration would come under tremendous pressure to be more flexible, and it might well capitulate, rather than be blamed for the failure of the talks.
It is because of this legitimate fear among neocons that it is the Bush administration, rather than Iran, whose position cannot stand the light of international scrutiny that John Bolton said the decision of the Bush Administration to send a representative to the "pre-pre-talks" in Geneva was a capitulation on the question of Iranian enrichment.
It is quite possible, even likely, that once talks are joined, the heretofore buried proposal of former UN Ambassador Pickering that the US and Iran agree on multinational enrichment of uranium in Iran will finally get a hearing in the international media; and most people in the world will think it reasonable that the endpoint of negotiations should not be the Bush administration's position, but an agreement that meets Iran half-way.
So it might well be in Iran's interest to call the Bush administration's bluff. The best way to refute a gambit is to accept it.
Ambassador Pickering explains his proposal.