Explore Harvard's Nieman network Nieman Fellowships Nieman Lab Nieman Reports Nieman Storyboard

European, Mid-East news media focus on U.S.-Iran talks

COMMENTARY | March 20, 2006

Caution, skepticism, uncertainty prevail. ‘A collision of hardened egos,’ says a Lebanese newspaper. And there is the theme that this time, unlike with Iraq, the U.S. can’t ignore the rest of the world.

By John Burke


PARISCaution and uncertainty were the underlying tones in many foreign newspapers as to Iran’s decision to open up discussions with the United States. The sudden reversal of policy by Iran’s most conservative factions had many in the West skeptical as to Tehran’s motivations.

Still, for the most part, the Middle Eastern and European press considered the March 16th announcement as a positive development in easing the perpetually strained relations between the world’s original nuclear power and what is arguably the most dangerous aspiring one.

One theme which could be potentially irritating to the Bush administration surfaced repeatedly: The U.S. cannot ignore the rest of the world in dealing with the Iranian situation as it did in the run-up to the Iraq War.

It was generally agreed that bilateral negotiations between the U.S. and Iran are necessary in achieving stability in the Gulf region. But the international community hopes that the often-adverse governments stick to the script, only negotiating what’s to be done in Iraq and leaving the touchy issue of Iran’s nuclear program up to the International Atomic Energy Agency and the United Nations.

Lebanon’s Daily Star pleads for the Bush administration to consider the long-term effects of its present dealings with Iran but doesn’t suggest a solution for the present row over Iran’s nuclear program in its column, “Reconcile ego and ideology between the U.S. and Iran”:

“After two and half years of dancing the Tehran atomic tango, it appears that the Bush administration has won a tactical victory. Appearances are deceiving, however, and this short-term gain could further impair American security and foreign policy in the Middle East…

“Indeed, what looms large between Iran and the United States is not a clash of interests, but a collision of hardened egos and divergent ideologies. Reconciling the two is the Rubicon impeding U.S.-Iranian relations…

“Given all the unknowns, Washington should apply the long view with respect to Iran, even if that goes against quick-fix foreign policy visions often imposed by U.S. electoral deadlines…

“Clearly though, American containment and isolation of the Islamic Republic has only increased Iran's nefarious activities. Pressure on Iran has never been successful.

“However, the irony is that Tehran and Washington have converging mutual interests when it comes to regional stability and security. This includes cooperation in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf. If these synergies are capitalized upon, both the U.S. and Iran could use cooperation on mutual interests as vectors for confidence-building. These, in turn, could lead to greater moderation on more tenuous issues…

“…Washington could realize that a cooperative and complacent Iran included in rather than alienated from security arrangements in the Middle East would benefit U.S. national interests.”

Another editorial in the Star, entitled “U.S. myopia harms India-Pakistan Amity,” not only suggests that the Iranian situation is causing nations to take sides like in the Cold War, but that Bush’s recent nuclear deal with India was a strategic move to keep India out of economic relations with Iran in the proposed Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline:

“Beyond the diplomatic tension this creates, the U.S.-Iranian showdown also threatens to scuttle one of the most promising regional cooperation initiatives of the past several decades: the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project.

“Though President George W. Bush, in off-the-cuff remarks in New Delhi recently, said he was not opposed to the deal, U.S. diplomats have been engaging in damage control and acting furiously to effectively derail it. Senior State Department official Nicholas Burns recently advised India to avoid the "unreliable" Iranians and instead look to Central Asia for its growing energy needs. The landmark U.S-India nuclear energy deal that officially welcomed India into the nuclear club is being seen as an American enticement to divert the Indians away from the Iranians.”


For Arab News, Iran’s willingness to negotiate with the US is the first of “Little Acorns” that could blossom into a solid oak. “The Iranians may hope that they can steer talks toward the nuclear dispute. At the moment that is unlikely. Washington is emphatic; talks will be about Iraq alone; the nuclear issue is now a matter completely and wholly for the UN…

“This reconnection with the quieter paths of diplomacy, away from the megaphones, is a triumph of common sense even if only in relation to Iraq. Tehran and Washington are major players on the Iraqi stage; if they can reach a consensus, it is bound to have an effect. Iraq, moreover, needs every helping hand it can get..

“Certainly there will be those on both sides who do not want improved relations and who will do their best to sabotage any contacts. That aside, there is the possibility that this could simply turn into a dialogue of the deaf.

“Nonetheless, if the two can talk on Iraq, they can talk on all their other problems. These talks could, and hopefully will, provide some confidence-building measures that the two countries need in order to set their relations on a saner and less emotional course. That would be a remarkable achievement.”

The Middle East Times argues that attacking Iran will only provoke it to continue its nuclear program, not to mention destroy ties with the region in the article “Iran will embrace nukes if attacked”:

“Military action against Iran would achieve precisely the opposite of what we would like to achieve. So-called 'surgical strikes' against Iran, whether by the United States or Israel, would convert a currently ambiguous and indeed suspicious, program, into an unambiguously nuclear weapons-oriented program and would result in Iran sparing no effort to acquire nuclear arms…

“Military strikes against Iran would not only be completely ineffective and counterproductive as far as preventing the emergence of a nuclear armed Iran, but would set the entire Middle East afire.

“Furthermore, a full-scale invasion of Iran would be in all probability completely impossible, and would be a catastrophe for relationships with the Middle East.

“Unfortunately these options are being increasingly spoken of by both Israel and the US administration.”

Another MET column entitled “No more hub and spokes,” uses Iran as the situation that is proving that the United States’ edge as the world’s only superpower is fading:

“… the Chinese, Russian, Indian and European powers now all think of themselves as equals, or at least demand to be treated that way.

“And the United States has to grin and bear it…

“It is deeply frustrating for the American superpower to have to operate (by waiting as United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency discuss the Iran situation), but this simply reveals the limits of American clout in the new multi-polar world where the other 

great powers have their own different priorities…

“But in this new age of America's post-Iraq weakness and distraction, it will not be enough to persuade Russia, India and China to go against their own interests, and may not even be enough to persuade the American public to trust the leadership of Bush on Iran, now that he is 

down to 34 percent approval in the polls.

“And if Cheney thinks that the lone superpower can get away with preemptive military strikes against Iran, when 160,000 American and British troops are virtual hostages next door in Iraq, then he is showing the same kind of sober and trustworthy judgment that he displayed on that ill-fated Texas hunting field last month.”

The Egyptian weekly Al-Ahram gets right to the point, and then goes beyond it, in “Iran on collision course”:

“The US-Iranian tug of war is not about anything but nuclear weapons. Everyone knows that, including IAEA Director Mohamed El-Baradei. Iran's conservatives want to show the world they are not an easy target. But the fact is that the Americans are in Iraq with Iran's explicit, as well as implicit, approval. Tehran is posturing on the matter of nuclear weapons, and we all know that Iraq's Shias, on orders from their Iranian-educated religious leaders, have given their blessing to the U.S. presence in Iraq.

“The U.S. is also pushing its luck. Washington is up to its neck in trouble, from Iraq to Afghanistan and even in Latin America, its own backyard. Washington has failed to stem terror: if anything, it has made it worse. Now the Americans are looking for a scapegoat, which is where Iran comes in.”

The French right-wing daily Le Figaro opines that “A first step by Iran” to open discourse Washington and Tehran is a positive development, but warns the US to watch its step:

“In Iraq, the Islamic Republic of Iran and the American ‘Great Satan’ need one another. This not only guarantees that the discussions that are going to take place will be productive, but that Washington and Tehran will receive much good publicity…

“Each knows… that the Iranian nuclear question will not be resolved without direct contact with the United States and that this contact is the only thing that will create the necessary guaranties for a renunciation of the bomb by Tehran…

“Exchanges between the U.S. and the Islamic Republic have remained confrontational even though they are the two powers the most directly interested in the stabilization of Iraq; the United States because it needs to begin a retreat before the Congressional elections in November and Iran because it wants to assure the installation of an amicable regime at its borders…

“… Iraq can’t be truly stabilized unless a regional equilibrium is reestablished, guaranteeing neighboring countries that there won’t be a rise in power of Shiites in the Gulf. For this, it is imperative to speak with Iran. The announcement of the contact between the US and Iran is just a first step… (But) the Americans are correct in remaining cautious and skeptical.”

The UK’s Telegraph argues “Bush must decide which is his least bad option on Iran”:

“America and Israel reserve the right to attack Iran's nuclear facilities. But the reality is that America, and the West in general, is in a much weaker position than it was when it removed Saddam, to the extent that the Iranian regime feels more than able to confront the West…

“So President Bush may soon face a choice of two bad options: Stick with diplomacy and risk  Iran becoming a hostile and destabilising nuclear power. Or bomb Iran, and risk enraging the Muslim world and provoking an even bigger global terrorist war.

“Either way, Iran could make Iraq look easy.”

Concerning the steps towards discussions between Tehran and Washington, the UK’s The Guardian considers that because of the United States’ weakened international standing and Iran’s willingness to negotiate, there is “Reason for Hope”:

“It is almost certainly the case that Iran has finally responded to an American request for consultations about Iraq, apparently on the table for some months, because it expects by this means to ease the pressure building on the nuclear front…

“Of course there is no chance of a deep rapprochement and the talks may well lead nowhere. The Bush administration could never give a green light for Iranian nuclear weapons, while the Iranian regime, opposed to American purposes both in Iraq and in the Middle East as a whole, could only go so far in assisting the US. But the obvious quid pro quo for Iranian help in Iraq would be a deceleration of the American campaign on the nuclear issue.

“Yet we are a world away from the go anywhere, do anything, and preferably do it alone America of 2002, and even from the democratic crusading of 2004. The Bush administration in those days expected cooperation from its friends as of right and thought it could crush its enemies without help if necessary. Militarily overstretched in Iraq, floundering in the polls at home, it now has a better, if far from perfect, understanding of limits.

“The same may also be true of the Iranian regime, embarrassed by its new president's slow learning curve, worried about the isolation which it is indeed experiencing, and concerned to contain its own divisions. The negotiations over Iraq, assuming they take place as planned, will be the first direct and open encounter between the two governments since the seizure of the Iranian embassy in 1979.

“It would be foolish to load too much on them, since the incompatibilities of the two countries are obvious in so many areas, yet there is some reason for hope.”

A review of the German press shows mixed opinions about what the potential US/Iran bilateral negotiations means:

Financial Times Deutschland: Iran’s willingness to talk is a good sign as the Mullahs in Iran exert influence over their religious brothers in Iraq and could, with a bit of goodwill, contribute to a de-escalation of violence. But, “All to often Iran has feigned an attitude of willingness to compromise. This sudden new cooperativeness probably has more to do with the fact that the US has upped the pressure. In America's new security strategy, the (Iranian) regime has been openly blamed for sabotaging Iraq's democratization process… The US would do well to avoid mixing talks over Iraq and the nuclear program."

Conservative Die Welt: “Iran's nuclear ambitions are responsible for sparking off an arms race not seen since the Cold War… As a result of all the uncertainty in the region, the world now faces one of its biggest challenges, the paper believes, since the Cuban Missile Crisis.”

Conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: "For America to talk to Iran about its role in Iraq is a double-edged sword ... If Washington enters into official talks then Iran would end up having an indirect voice in events in Iraq… It is not to be ruled out that Iran is simply trying to make mischief and is playing for time (for its nuclear ambitions).”

Leftist Die Tageszeitung fears the worst: “Combined with the US administration's recent criticisms of the Iranian government, the (amended national security strategy) makes clear that the so-called military option has, contrary to all good sense, begun to haunt the heads of the American leadership."

The weekly news magazine Der Spiegel feels that although “the biggest step forward in the attempt to stabilize Iraq was what appears to be a tentative reprise of diplomatic relations between the USA and Iran… It’s far from clear that this decision represents a genuine change of direction in the US stance towards Tehran.”


The NiemanWatchdog.org website is no longer being updated. Watchdog stories have a new home in Nieman Reports.