The Bush administration did not have to wait until July to get an answer. Iran responded to the package of nuclear incentives immediately, with a one word answer – ”No!” Why? Iran has adamantly refused to stop uranium enrichment, rejecting a key precondition for talks to begin on the incentive-package offer put forward by the ”Perm-5 plus 1,” the five permanent members of the Security Council (U.S., Britain, France, Russia, and China) plus Germany.

The definitive statement came from Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati in his Friday prayer sermon in Tehran: ”Iran’s right to have access to peaceful nuclear technology is undeniable.” Referring directly to the offer of the ”Perm-5 plus 1,” Ayatollah Jannati said: ”The Iranian nation and officials and supreme leader (Ayatollah Khamenei) and all those who have hands in administration of the country’s affairs, will not accept Iran’s withdrawal from its inalienable rights.”

Ayatollah Jannati heads Iran’s Guardian Council, a legislative oversight group composed of clerics. As head of the Guardian Council, Jannati holds a position of policy-making authority within the theocracy, even though his role is generally played out behind the scenes. Also important was the occasion for the speech. The Friday prayer sermon in Tehran is a key forum for the clerics ruling the regime to make definitive religious declarations that effectively function as regime directives, especially when someone like Ayatollah Jannati uses the sermon to issue a policy declaration.

On Saturday, Iran’s Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said Iran would put forward a counter-proposal aimed at a ”comprehensive solution.” Here, ”comprehensive solution” is a code word for demanding unconditional talks, without any requirement to stop enriching uranium. Iran has always been happy to accept the prestige of direct talks with the U.S., as long as the talks accepted Iran’s presumed right to enrich uranium on its own soil.

Moreover, the IAEA confirmed last week that Iran had resumed feeding uranium hexafluoride gas into the centrifuges at Natanz. Iran accelerated uranium enrichment at Natanz on June 6, the same day EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana traveled to Tehran to present the incentives package to the regime. The regime argued the timing was coincidental, with the nuclear technicians making the decision once certain technical problems had been solved. Still, had the regime wanted to communicate a cooperative posture, the regime could have ordered the nuclear technicians to hold off.

By structuring this incentive package, the Bush administration was trying to isolate Tehran diplomatically, offering to give Iran the fuel and technical expertise required for the peaceful use of nuclear energy. The centerpiece requirement was that Iran had to agree to first stop uranium enrichment; otherwise, there would be no talks and no incentive package. This was the one condition that separated the Bush administration offer from the Clinton administration policy toward North Korea, as well as the policy toward Iran that John Kerry suggested in the first 2004 presidential debate with George Bush. The idea was if Iran rejected the deal, the world would know Iran intended more than peaceful uses for nuclear power. The strategy failed.

Iran predictably saw the new offer as a sign of weakness. Within hours, the regime developed a strategy to skillfully shift the ground of the debate, suggesting the proposal was a sham because the United States was still bullying Iran. Last week, President Ahmadinejad said Iran was more than happy to talk with the United States, but not if talks meant Iran had to give up its ”inalienable rights” to pursue the complete nuclear-fuel cycle. Ahmadinejad suggested his 17-page letter to President Bush addressed the increasing problems in the world: ”They (the United States) make decisions against Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan. We intend to hold talks with them on roots of corruption, discrimination and cruelties.”

Democratic critics such as Madame Albright are certain to argue that there can be no harm in talks, or worse, that the Bush administration is unreasonable not to talk. Once again, we are back at the famous Iranian stalling tactic aimed at buying more time, now by talking about holding talks. If the Bush administration agrees to talk with Iran without getting a moratorium on Iran’s uranium enrichment, Bush’s policy on Iran will become indistinguishable from what John Kerry would have done. The United States is quickly being reduced to the position of bribing Iran, just to get direct talks that Iran will demand be predicated on offering only ”carrots,” not ”sticks.”

Truthfully, the Bush administration has accomplished almost nothing with Iran since the second inaugural.The Bush administration has continued to shift strategies, moving from the confrontational strategy of the first Bush term to the negotiating strategy of the second Bush term.The strategy to negotiate with Iran, along with the EU-3 and the IAEA, was doomed from the beginning. Today, Iran continues to advance undeterred toward a nuclear weapon. Now the Iranian regime has announced that uranium-235 has been enriched up to 4.8 percent, an improvement over last month’s IAEA-affirmed announcement of 3.5 percent.

In his second inaugural address, President Bush gave dissidents in Iran bold reason for hope by suggesting the United States would stand with those who opposed despotic regimes such as the Islamic Republic of Iran. Sadly, the U.S. is now scrambling, having to offer John Kerry-like goodies to Iran, just to hold our allies together.

Today, it is not clear John Bolton has assembled even a ”coalition of the willing” within the Security Council. What is clear is that the Bush administration does not have a snowball’s chance of getting the Security Council to vote a sanctions resolution against Iran.

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