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June 10, 2006

US Stumbles Onto Road to Diplomacy With Iran

by Leon Hadar

For several 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.

In particular, 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.

"Don't 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.

President Nixon 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 destination.

President Bush 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.

Indeed, when 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 Shi'ite 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.

Dead Ends

The Americans were hoping that the failure of the talks between the EU3 (Britain, France, Germany) and Iran 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.

With Britain's 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.

If anything, 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 alley.

The tendency 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.

The Americans 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 here.

We Realpolitik 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 a la Congress of Vienna in dealing with major global problems.

Of course, 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!

But that's 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.

Yes, Washington 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 Korea front.

Remember that 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.

Sticks vs. Carrots

And we are willing to provide the Iranians with "carrots" while in the past we only threatened them with "sticks." Washington and Tehran 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.

There will 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 come true).

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 Persian Gulf.

At 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" – Tehran 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 office.

Copyright © 2006 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.

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  • Leon Hadar is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan). He is the former United Nations bureau chief for the Jerusalem Post and is currently the Washington correspondent for the Singapore Business Times. Visit his blog.

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