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Talking to Iran

IF THERE is any chance to deflect Iran from its apparent quest for nuclear weapons, the Iranian and US governments will have to negotiate. But if the Bush administration continues to rule out any direct bargaining with Tehran over its nuclear program, US policy options will eventually be reduced to two: accepting a nuclear-armed Iran or using bombs and missiles to set back the Iranian program for a few years. This is the hard truth that hovers in the background of last week's simultaneous announcement in Tehran and Washington of forthcoming discussions about Iraq between Iranian and American officials.

The good news is that decision makers in Tehran are hinting, as they have in the past, that they are prepared to talk about more than Iraq. US policy makers ought to take Iran's readiness to bargain about Iraq with the US ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, as the Iranians' way of indicating they will entertain offers meant to entice them to drop their dangerous demand to enrich uranium inside Iran.

Initial statements from key administration officials, however, have rejected the very idea of wide-ranging negotiations. This stance may gratify administration hard-liners who oppose bargaining with a contemptible regime, but it can also foreclose any possibility of a peaceful resolution.

The fact that Iran has accepted a dialogue with the United States -- despite that regime's domestic stance of hostility to the ''Great Satan'' -- ought to be instructive to administration hard-liners. They now have evidence not only that Iran's clerical regime recognizes, realistically, its need to reach a set of understandings with Washington, but also that Iran's inflammatory president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is not the person who calls the shots in Tehran. Ahmadinejad has had to follow along, sheepishly, with a policy of engagement with America. That policy was announced in Iran's Parliament by Ali Larijani, a reputed hard-liner himself who is the head of Iran's Supreme National Security Council and -- most significant -- the lead Iranian negotiator on nuclear matters.

Again and again, Iranian officials have let it be known they are seeking security guarantees that only the Americans, not the Europeans, can provide. Unpleasant as it may be for President Bush to make such an offer to the repressive rulers of Iran, that is the key to keeping nuclear weapons out of their hands. It may also be accompanied by a guaranteed supply of nuclear fuel for power plants and access to other peaceful forms of advanced energy technology. But no deal can be struck until Bush enters the bazaar and starts bargaining.

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