According to a Washington Post report this morning, Iran has been explicitly seeking to get an agreement from the Bush administration to engage directly on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program:

Iran has followed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s recent letter to President Bush with explicit requests for direct talks on its nuclear program, according to U.S. officials, Iranian analysts and foreign diplomats.

The eagerness for talks demonstrates a profound change in Iran’s political orthodoxy, emphatically erasing a taboo against contact with Washington that has both defined and confined Tehran’s public foreign policy for more than a quarter-century, they said.

“You know, two months ago nobody would believe that Mr. Khamenei and Mr. Ahmadinejad together would be trying to get George W. Bush to begin negotiations,” said Saeed Laylaz, a former government official and prominent analyst in Tehran. “This is a sign of changing strategy. They realize the situation is dangerous and they should not waste time, that they should reach out.”

Laylaz and several diplomats said senior Iranian officials have asked a multitude of intermediaries to pass word to Washington making clear their appetite for direct talks. He said Ali Larijani, chairman of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, passed that message to the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, who arrived in Washington Tuesday for talks with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley.

Iranian officials made similar requests through Indonesia, Kuwait and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, Laylaz said. American intelligence analysts also say Larijani’s urgent requests for meetings with senior officials in France and Germany appear to be part of a bid for dialogue with Washington.

“They’ve been desperate to do it,” said a European diplomat in Tehran.

So what is our President’s response to their pleas to begin negotiations? Take a good look:

(cont. below the fold)

US President George W Bush expressed doubts that Iran wants a negotiated solution to the dispute over its nuclear programme, AFP said. […]

Bush said that Iran’s rejection of international offers to provide and collect uranium fuel, so that weapons cannot be developed, had raised his suspicions about Tehran’s intentions.

“This very realistic and reasonable approach has been rejected by the Iranians. And so I say to our friends in our consortium: ‘I’m not so sure these people really do want a solution’.”

Now, unless someone is simply refusing to pass along the Iranian’s request for direct talks, you have to assume that what Bush is saying here is misleading at best, and an outright lie at worst. And it’s not like the Europeans aren’t aware of Iran’s attempts to engage the US. Many of them have been urging him to do so, as this excerpt from my story yesterday demonstrates:

During a visit to Washington from April 3 to 4, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told reporters he had advised Rice and Hadley that the talks he understood were to occur between the US and Iran should not be limited to Iraq but should include the nuclear issue as well.

Steinmeier also said that former British foreign minister Jack Straw joined him in supporting direct US-Iranian negotiations. Straw, who had infuriated hardliners in the US by referring to an attack on Iran as “inconceivable” and unjustified, was replaced by Prime Minister Tony Blair as foreign minister early this month. In late April, German Minister of Defense Franz Josef Jung struck the same theme. “This is our request to Washington: that it begin direct talks and from there reach results,” Jung said.

Meanwhile, we keep hearing stories in the conservative press demonizing Iran, and official statements from Israel’s Prime Minister that Iran is only “months away” from assembling a nuclear weapon. I’m grateful that the Washington Post has finally begun to report the story that Iran has pushing for talks with Bush, a fact that has apparently been known in diplomatic circles for some time. However, the fact that those diplomats have now seen fit to leak this story to the American media can only send up warning signals in the minds of intelligent observers of the situation.

I suspect that both Iran and the Europeans are sensing that Bush has closed off the possibility of a diplomatic solution, and is close to pulling the trigger for a massive attack on Iran. How soon no one can know, but the fact that these Iranian and European diplomats are willing to go public with this very sensitive information can only mean that the Bush administration has made it clear to all parties concerned that there will be no negotiations with Iran. Bush wouldn’t talk with the Iranians in 2003 about striking a deal, and he won’t do so now. Indeed, as I pointed out yesterday, a negotiated settlement with Iran seems to be the only option that Bush has taken off the table.

“We’re on the cusp of going to the Security Council,” [Bush] said.

“And the more the Iranians refuse to negotiate in good faith, more countries are beginning to realize that we must continue to work together.”

Two things.

First point: it isn’t the Iranians who are refusing to negotiate in good faith. They want security assurances from the US that Iran won’t be attacked. So long as Iran cannot sit down and talk directly to the US, it has little incentive to throw away its only bargaining chip in this manufactured crisis. Indeed, it is the United States, and in particular its President, who is acting in bad faith here.

In 2003, Bush could have had a deal that eliminated any threat of Iran getting a nuke, and also eliminated its support for Hamas and Hezbollah. Bush could probably have that same deal today, but he would have to give Iran what it legitimately wants, assurances that the US will not seek to actively overthrow Iran’s government. Think what you will about the Iranian regime, but that is a reasonable request, and one that would go far to ending tensions across the Middle East.

Second point: when Bush says he’s ready to take this to the Security Council, that should only be interpreted as an indication that his ultimate goal is a military confrontation. The last time the US took a matter involving a Muslim country thought to be pursuing nuclear weapons to the Security Council, we all know what happened.

The UN Security Council’s actions (the Security Council resolution authorizing inspections) and its inaction (the refusal to pass a resolution for war with Iraq) were both used as justifications by Bush for his invasion of Iraq. To the Bush administration, the UN is simply a stage on which to pontificate and strut, in order to build support among the American public for a military solution to the crisis of the moment.

Earlier this year we saw sources in the Pentagon and State Department leaking details of Bush’s war plans for Iran to Seymour Hersh. Many in the military were aghast that Bush would even consider another war, one that might employ nuclear weapons against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, in light of the dire consequences that might ensue, not least the danger posed to our troops in Iraq. This new story only makes it more apparent that those in diplomatic circles who seek a peaceful resolution have seen the writing on the wall, as well. Otherwise they would have remained silent, and allowed the diplomatic dance between Iran and the US to play out. Obviously, when one partner is refusing to dance, keeping quiet about such diplomatic efforts no longer has any efficacy.

And it’s not just foreign diplomats who are hoping to pressure the Bush administration to the negotiating table. Let’s return for a moment to the WaPO story for a moment:

The administration repeatedly has rejected talks, saying Iran must negotiate with the three European powers that have led nuclear diplomacy since the Iranian nuclear program became public in 2002. Within hours of receiving Ahmadinejad’s letter, Rice dismissed it as containing nothing new.

But U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity said government experts have exerted mounting pressure on the Bush administration to reply to the letter, seconding public urgings from commentators and former officials. “The content was wacky and, from an American point of view, offensive. But why should we cede the high moral ground, and why shouldn’t we at least respond to the Iranian people?” said an official who has been pushing for a public response.

Analysts, including American specialists on Iran, emphasized that the contents of the letter are less significant than its return address. No other Iranian president had attempted direct contact with his U.S. counterpart since the countries broke off diplomatic relations after student militants overran the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979, holding 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.

You notice that? Both current US government experts on Iran and former officials are pushing for Bush to do the right thing and sit down with the Iranians to discuss these issues. That only reinforces my point that all stops are being pulled out behind the scenes to stop another war of choice by President Bush. The only question is whether they and we are already too late.

One thing that can still be done is for the Democrats to stand up and make it known that they want direct talks with Iran before we engage in any military action. They need to be out front now, pointing out the consequences of refusing to negotiate. A war would likely impact Americans in many ways but almost certainly gas prices would double or triple overnight. That ought to be something that ought to give pause to even the most dittohead Bush loyalist, even if the increased risk to our troops in the Middle East, and of terrorist incidents here in the US doesn’t concern them.

So Democratic leader, please. Speak up.

Now, before its too late and the bombs are already flying. This is a winning issue for you, but you have to take the initiative. Stop worrying about the inevitable attacks on your character and stand up in opposition to Bush’s reckless and dangerous policy toward Iran. Do it before we lose what little is left of our democracy and of the Democratic party’s own political and moral legitimacy.

Cross-posted at Daily Kos and at My Left Wing.

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