The following editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune June 1:

A few weeks ago, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent a long, rambling letter to President Bush that some diplomats interpreted as an invitation for talks. On Wednesday, he got his answer.

In a surprising shift of a long-standing American policy, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced that the United States would join other nations in direct talks with Iran on its nuclear program if Tehran first agreed to stop enriching uranium, the stuff of bombs.

Iran’s first response was a rebuff: The official Iranian news agency dubbed the offer “a propaganda move.” That’s not surprising. Iran has been adamant about pursuing its nuclear ambitions.

But this is a significant diplomatic overture by the administration. It should give European allies more confidence that the U.S. is willing to follow every possible peaceful course to stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions. It should help persuade recalcitrants Russia and China to go along with the economic isolation of Iran if Iran refuses to stop enrichment and come to the table. It should shift the pressure onto Iran to comply. If the Iranians continue to refuse, then they alone will be seen as thwarting a diplomatic solution.

Over the past weeks, many politicians and diplomats have publicly urged the Bush administration to engage Tehran. Now they have their wish.

The earlier reluctance of the U.S. to do so has been “the last excuse,” Rice said. “… There have been those who have said, well, if only the negotiations had the potential for the United States to be a part of them, perhaps then Iran would respond. So now we have a pretty clear path.”

But a path to what – a negotiated settlement or sanctions or worse? The Europeans are assembling another package of incentives as part of the U.N. Security Council effort to tempt Iran to stop its nuclear program. They are also compiling a list of potential sanctions if, as expected, Iran doesn’t comply.

We shouldn’t forget why the administration has been wary of talking directly to the Iranians. The mullahs who rule the country have cheated on their nuclear program for the better part of two decades. There’s the fear that such talks would lend more credibility to a government that brutally suppresses its people and revels in its support of terrorism around the world. There’s also a danger of getting entangled in red tape. The mullahs would like nothing better than to spend the next several months dickering over conditions for talks, all the while feverishly building their bomb program.

Realistically, however, the United States has few appealing options. It won’t get wide U.N. Security Council support for economic sanctions unless it first demonstrates to the world that it has avidly pursued all diplomatic paths.

So now the United States has made a reasonable offer. In recent weeks, Tehran was reported to be eager for the talks, sending word to the U.S. through various intermediaries. “They’ve been desperate to do it,” one unnamed European diplomat in Tehran told The Washington Post. How desperate are they? Now we’ll see. The guess here is that the United States has just called Tehran’s bluff.

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