Stumbles Onto Road to Diplomacy With Iran
by Leon Hadar
years I have argued that Washington should adopt a Realpolitik-type
approach to dealing with Iran, including by opening a direct diplomatic
dialogue with Tehran aimed at resolving some of the differences
between the two governments.
I've been critical of the Bush administration's neocon-driven policy
of promoting "regime change" in Iran and of its rejection
of diplomatic overtures from Iran. And I've called on President
George W Bush to follow the example of another hawkish Republican
President, Richard Nixon, who reshaped global politics by going
to communist China, and adopt a similar strategy by going to the
Islamic Republic of Iran.
So it's not
surprising that the recent news about the US decision to agree to
negotiate with Iran resulted in quite a few e-mails from colleagues
who wanted to know whether I thought that the recent development
reflected a change in US position towards a more "realistic"
approach vis-à-vis Iran.
you agree that President Bush and Secretary (Condoleezza) Rice have
finally distanced themselves from the neoconservative agenda and
have embraced a Kissinger-like policy towards Iran?" one of
my correspondents e-mailed me. The simple answer is that, no, I
don't agree with the notion that the recent move by the Bush-Rice
team to agree to talk with Iran (under certain conditions) recalls
the decision by the Nixon-Kissinger crew to open diplomatic negotiations
with China. The latter move was one major step in the implementation
of a coherent strategy whose goal was to change the balance of power
in the Cold War by forming a Sino-American alliance that would counter
Soviet power around the world.
and his top foreign policy advisor Dr. Henry Kissinger were determined
to establish diplomatic links with Beijing and ensured that their
project would succeed by conducting preliminary secret negotiations
with the Chinese. One could compare their policy to a powerful bulldozer
running over all the obstacles as it pressed ahead towards the final
and Ms Rice, on the other hand, resemble the exhausted and disoriented
drivers of a broken-down vehicle who cannot operate the GPS in the
car and who are not even sure what address they should be looking
for. But driving around town for hours and hours they are relieved
to discover a gas station where they hope to make a phone call and
perhaps purchase a map. And who knows? They might even end up being
on time for their job interview.
it comes to the Bush administration's policy towards Iran (and other
global problems), much of what the pundits describe as "diplomacy"
is actually nothing more than an attempt to "muddle through"
one crisis after another; to come up with ad-hoc responses that
reflect the existing political pressures at home and the balance
of power abroad without advancing a consistent policy that articulates
US interests by utilizing available power and selecting the necessary
means to advance realistic goals.
Hence in the
immediate aftermath of the Iraq War, when the Bushies were celebrating
what they expected to become the first stage in the spread of democracy
in the Middle East, the talk in Washington was about achieving "regime
change" in Tehran through a mix of diplomatic and military
pressure. In fact, Washington dismissed at that stage several diplomatic
advances from Iran and expressed confidence that the Iranian people
would soon take to the streets and topple the mullahs.
When Iraq turned
into a mess and the Iranians elected an anti-American populist president
while cementing their links to the Shiite majority in Iraq, the
military option was placed on the backburner while the Europeans
were encouraged by Washington to negotiate with the Iranians on
their alleged nuclear program.
were hoping that the failure of the talks between the EU3 (Britain,
France, Germany) would create the conditions for winning support
from the UN Security Council for sanctions against Iran. The talks
had indeed collapsed – but rising oil prices helped to strengthen
Iran's hand and made it less likely that Russia and China, or for
that matter, India or Brazil, would jump aboard the sanctions ship.
And the US military power overstretched in Iraq and elsewhere, rising
American public impatience with the military adventures in the Middle
East, the American voters angry at high oil prices and the opposition
from Europe made it clear to the administration that using the military
option against Iran would be very (very!) costly.
And it was
at this stage that our perplexed US drivers saw the lights of a
gas station – and since real men don't ask for directions – Mr.
Bush asked Condi to get out of the car and find out where the hell
they were going and where they should make the next turn.
Tony Blair and Germany's Angela Merkel playing the role of the friendly
gas attendants, Mr. Bush's diplomatic sidekick discovered that Military
Drive, Sanctions Road and No-Direct-US-Negotiations-with-Iran Avenue
were all leading to dead ends.
the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's letter to Mr. Bush,
which was dismissed by the Americans as nothing more than a publicity
stunt proved to be a successful publicity stunt that increased the
pressure on Mr. Bush and Ms Rice to "do something" just
as the Wise Men and Women in Washington (including Dr. K himself)
were suggesting that the time has come to talk with Iran as opposed
to using the EU3 as diplomatic contractors. That explains why Mr.
Bush and Ms Rice are now turning on to the Direct-US-Negotiations-with-Iran
among critics of the Bush administration's Iran policy is to argue
now that this alley will also lead to a dead diplomatic end, noting
that the White House attached a precondition that Tehran would never
accept – a halt to its uranium-enrichment program – so that it could
claim an attempt at diplomacy on the way to its real objectives
of economic sanctions or perhaps military action.
But even these
critics should admit that the recent American move – while not to
be compared to the opening to communist China – is a step in the
right "realistic" direction. Ms Rice has not filed for
divorce from Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, but she and her advisors
have recognized the diplomatic, economic and military constraints
that make it impossible for the US to force Iran to accept its demands.
have concluded that they need to reach a consensus with the Europeans,
Russians and Chinese, since only the combined power of these players
could make a difference. That means, however, that Washington needed
also to modify its position on Iran which is exactly what happened
types have never advocated "multilateralism," which is
based on the assumption that Washington needs to get a green light
from Madagascar before going to war. Instead, real realists are
in agreement that the US should work together with the other Great
Powers through a diplomatic consortium à la Congress of Vienna in
dealing with major global problems.
Bush administration apologists are spinning the latest US decision
as a great diplomatic victory for the Bushies which supposedly reflects
the willingness on the part of Europe, Russia and China to back
the tough US position and use all necessary means to force Iran
to give up its nuclear military program, or else!
not the case as most diplomatic outcomes are non-zero-sum by definition.
You gain some (The ball is in Iran's court). And you lose some.
It's obvious that the neocon fantasy of "regime change"
in Iran is out.
will continue to hope that the ayatollahs will be replaced by political
and economic reformers (in the same way that we hope for political
change in China, for example). But the willingness to engage diplomatically
with the current regime in Tehran means that we accept it as legitimate.
In fact, it
is clear that any possible accord with Iran would probably lead
gradually to diplomatic links between Washington and Tehran. This
is the same process that has already taken place on the US-North
other member of Mr. Bush's "Axis of Evil?" We are not
only negotiating with these Bad Guys, as part of another Great Power
Consortium, but we now seem to be ready to recognize them and sign
a peace accord with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il who seems to
be (at least to me) as deranged as Mr. Ahmadinejad.
And we are
willing to provide the Iranians with "carrots" while in
the past we only threatened them with "sticks." Washington
and Teheran are now joined together on the Diplomatic Slippery Slope.
The Bushies opened the diplomatic door – and it would be difficult
for them to close it now even if initial Iranian reactions to the
American proposal are bound to be negative.
be pressure on both sides to make more concessions (which worries
Mr. Cheney) or else face the prospects that they'll have a military
collision on the Road to War (which would be Mr. Cheney's dream
It seems quite
obvious to me that the top political leaders on both sides want
to avoid a costly war. But both sides have different expectations
as they enter (hopefully) into the negotiations mode. The Americans
have yet to devise a coherent strategy on Iran that could lead to
a bilateral deal involving not only the nuclear issue, but common
US-Iran interests in Iraq, Israel/Palestine, Afghanistan, and the
the end of the day, the Iranians want Washington to recognize it
as a major player in the Persian Gulf (including Iraq) which challenges
the notion backed by both Democrats and Republicans, and mainstream
liberals and conservatives, of US hegemony there. Mr. Bush and Ms
Rice want Iran to "do a Libya" – Teheran must give up
its entire nuclear program in exchange for the carrots. That isn't
going to happen. It's possible that someone would come up with some
creative ideas that would slow down the Iranian drive towards nuclear
military power while allowing them to save face.
But I'm not
sure that that is going to work out. So if I had to make a bet,
I would put my money on the military-collision scenario taking place
sometime after the Congressional elections and before Mr. Bush leaves
Hadar [send him mail] is
Washington correspondent for the Business
Times of Singapore and the author of Sandstorm:
Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan). Visit
© 2006 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved. Reprinted
with permission of the author.