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Al Jazeera is claiming that ” hardliners ” in the Bush administration are blocking the opening of talks with Iran to conclude a ” grand bargain ” that would resolve issues of nuclear weapons and terrorism and lead to a restoration of diplomatic ties between the two countries.

This isn’t the first time such stories of Iranian feelers have surfaced. If the report is reasonably accurate, bureaucratic caution may have more to do with ” blocking talks ” than neocon ideology. While views about Iran differ among working analysts and junior officials at State, the CIA, the NSC and the Pentagon, few senior officials have pollyannish hopes for the nature of the Khameini-Rafsanjani clique. The United States is already supporting an IAEA and EU dialogue with Iran so the Bush administration would have little to lose and much goodwill to gain with allies by allowing exploratory talks with Iran – if the Iranian side’s representatives were empowered to conduct actual negotiations. In such an event, negotiations could produce some real progress on moderating the worst behavior of the regime at a cheap price.

The first rule of any negotiation is not to allow oneself to be drawn in to a charade with powerless intermediaries where the other side’s true decision makers sit removed in order to enigmatically veto the results of each round of talks in order to cajole further concessions. Iran most likely has not put up a figure of credibility yet who can deliver on promises and has instead suggested a series of shadowy, unofficial, middlemen to talk to American officials. If that is what has occurred it’s either a stalling tactic with an eye on our upcoming elections or a preliminary fishing expedition by the Iranians to sound out potential American negotiating positions. Or both.

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