WASHINGTON – The realists appear to have chalked up another win in their ongoing internal battle against hawks within the foreign policy branch of President George W. Bush’s administration.
The decision to send the State Department’s third-ranking official to Geneva July 19 to join talks between the other four permanent members of the UN Security and Germany, on the one hand, and Iran, one of the three charter members of Mr. Bush’s “Axis of Evil,” on the other, marks a significant relaxation in the administration’s policy.
Until now, the Bush administration had insisted it would not participate in direct talks until Tehran froze its uranium enrichment program. The most influential hawk inside the administration has been Vice President Dick Cheney.
Combined with other recent actions and statements by senior administration officials, the move also strongly suggests that Mr. Bush intends to leave office next January without yet launching a military attack against a predominantly Islamic nation, even if the future of Iran’s nuclear program remains unsettled by the time of his departure.
“What this does show is how serious we are when we say we want to try to solve this diplomatically,” Bush spokeswoman Dana Perino told reporters, confirming that Undersecretary of State for Policy William Burns would sit at the same table with Iran’s nuclear envoy Saeed Jalili, even if his role was formally confined to “listening,” as the White House insisted.
Analysts compare the latest softening toward Iran with the evolution of U.S. policy toward North Korea’s nuclear program since late 2006, when Pyongyang exploded a nuclear device.
Shortly afterward, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice helped persuade Bush to drop his opposition to direct engagement with Pyongyang in order to revive the stalled Six-Party Talks that were launched in 2003 to persuade Kim Jong-il to abandon his nuclear program.
She was aided in that quest by the other members of the process–most notably China and South Korea, as well as Japan and Russia–which had long argued that the talks were unlikely to make progress unless Washington engaged with Pyongyang directly.
Despite repeated howls of protest and cries of “appeasement” by the hawks, most recently given voice by former UN Ambassador John Bolton, Mr. Bush has stuck by his decision to give Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher Hill the flexibility he has requested to give new life to the talks. Mr. Bolton expressed his views in a searing column, “The Tragic End of Bush’s North Korea Policy,” published by the Wall Street Journal.
Mr. Bolton, who is widely seen as representing Vice President Cheney’s views, has also complained loudly about the evolution of Mr. Bush’s Iran policy since Ms. Rice persuaded the president in May 2006 to offer to join multilateral negotiations over Tehran’s nuclear program if Iran suspended its enrichment program. Until then, Mr. Bush had heeded hardliners who argued that direct talks would be seen as legitimizing the regime and demoralize its opposition.
As in the North Korea case, Ms. Rice was aided by Washington’s foreign partners–in this case, the EU-3 (France, Germany and Britain), Russia and China–which argued that they were unlikely to make any progress in persuading Tehran to freeze its program unless the U.S. at least made a conditional offer to join the talks.
Despite cosponsoring two rounds U.S.-sponsored UN Security Council resolutions imposing sanctions on Tehran for failing to comply with their demands to freeze uranium enrichment, those same powers successfully prodded Washington to make a series of other concessions, including offering more attractive carrots as part of a negotiating package designed to lure Iran into compliance, to get negotiations started.
When these did not have the desired effect, however, they privately urged the administration to modify its precondition in a way that would permit Washington to at least sit at the table in the forthcoming talks with Iran over their latest proposal–the so-called “freeze for freeze,” a simultaneous suspension of international sanctions and uranium enrichment–as set forth by their chief negotiator and the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Javier Solana.
Even before the State Department confirmed that Mr. Burns would attend the talks, Mr. Bolton was complaining bitterly on the Journal’s editorial page July 15 about what he and his fellow hawks consider to be a disastrous sellout, blaming the EU-3 and the State Department for “failed diplomacy.” He argued that if Iran proceeds with what the hawks are convinced is a nuclear arms program aimed at Israel, it will change the “Middle East, and indeed global, balance of power … in potentially catastrophic ways.”
To redress the situation, he called for the U.S. to attack Iran’s nuclear installations or, at the least, to “place no obstacles in Israel’s path” if it decides to carry out such an attack.
The fact that Mr. Bolton could be both so scathing and so apocalyptic even before the Burns announcement suggests that the hawks are increasingly despairing about their ability to influence, let alone regain control of, U.S. Iran policy between now and the end of Mr. Bush’s tenure.
Indeed, as noted by Gary Sick, an Iran specialist at Columbia University who worked in the National Security Council under Presidents Ford, Carter and Reagan, Mr. Bolton’s analysis of the direction of U.S. policy and the balance of power within the administration is “unerringly accurate.”
Indeed, despite the ritual invocation that “all options are on the table” with respect to Iran, several moves in recent weeks have suggested a more accommodating policy, not least the suggestion by unnamed senior State Department officials that Washington should open an Interests Section in Tehran.
In addition, the official reaction to Iran’s recent missile launches, voiced by Mr. Burns himself, was unexpectedly muted.
But perhaps most significant was a series of statements by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, after a visit to Israel in late June that any attack on Iran–whether by the U.S. or Israel–would be destabilizing to the region and “extremely stressful” on his military for-ces. He also called for a “broad dialogue with Iran.”
At the same time, Pentagon chief Robert Gates, who has made little secret of his desire to engage Tehran, ordered one of the two aircraft carrier groups stationed in the Gulf to deploy instead to the Arabian Sea off Pakistan in light of the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. The move not only helped underline the military’s conviction that the border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan have become the “central front” in the war on terror but also appeared designed to reduce tensions with Iran.
At the July 19 meeting in Geneva, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China sought to encourage Iran to stop enrichment of uranium, which can be used to fuel atomic weapons, in exchange for economic and political incentives.
The U.S. administration broke with long-standing policy to send a top diplomat to support the offer.
One member of the Iranian delegation said there was “no chance” Iran would suspend uranium enrichment, again denying assertions that Iran’s nuclear program was for anything other than power production.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said July 21, “We expected to hear an answer from the Iranians but, as has been the case so many times with the Iranians, what came through was not serious.”
“It’s time for the Iranians to give a serious answer,” Ms. Rice told reporters aboard her plane as she flew to the United Arab Emirates.
The six powers and Mr. Solana gave Iran two weeks to respond to their demand, setting the stage for a new round of UN sanctions.
Mr. Solana said the two-week timeframe was meant to give Iran the space to come up with “the answers that will allow us to continue.”
(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)
Iranian Leader: Nation will continue on its nuclear energy path (FCN, 07-30-2008)
Does Iran Have Bush Over a Barrel? (FCN, 07-09-2008)
Iranian President: ‘Iran does not intend to wipe out Israel’ (PRESS TV, 07-08-2008)
Nuclear hypocrisy in Iran’s treatment (FCN, 03-12-2006)