Two weeks after making major concessions for a
nuclear accord with North Korea, the administration of President George W. Bush
said Tuesday it was prepared to sit down with Iran and Syria as part of a regional
conference to stabilize Iraq.
In testimony before the Senate
Appropriations Committee, Secretary of State Condoleezza
Rice, widely considered the leader of the "realist" faction within
the administration, announced that Washington will join a "neighbors’ meeting,"
convened by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and scheduled for the first
half of March, to be followed by ministerial talks one month later which she
"I would note that the Iraqi government has invited all of its neighbors,
including Syria and Iran, to attend both of these regional meetings,’’ she said.
"We hope that all governments will seize this opportunity to improve (their)
relations with Iraq and to work for peace and stability in the region."
She also described the proposed regional talks that would explicitly embrace
Iran and Syria as consistent with a key recommendation last December of the
Iraq Study Group (ISG), a bipartisan
task force co-chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Democratic
Rep. Lee Hamilton, that had previously been all but rejected by Bush.
"This is one of the key findings, of course, of the ISG, and it is an
important dimension that many in the Senate and in the Congress have brought
to our attention, and I've had very fruitful discussions about how to do this,"
said Rice, who referred to the Iraqi initiative as a "new diplomatic offensive,"
a phrase lifted directly from the report.
State Department spokesman Sean
McCormick later stressed that the proposed talks would be confined to Iraqi
security, reconstruction, and national reconciliation, although he did not rule
out bilateral talks on other issues. At the same time, he insisted that direct
talks with Iran on its nuclear program remained conditional on Tehran’s suspending
its uranium enrichment.
But both sets of talks, according to Rice, will also include members of the
UN Security Council Permanent Five
(P-5), which are currently engaged in discussions over possible sanctions against
Tehran for rejecting their demand that enrichment be suspended, and possibly
members of the Group
of Eight. That would set up at least the theoretical possibility of Rice
and her counterparts from Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany – all
of which have long urged Washington to sit down with Iran – from holding informal
discussions on nuclear issues with Tehran’s representatives in April.
Tuesday’s statements came amid growing public and Congressional concern about
the administration’s intentions toward Iran, particularly in light of its recent
deployment of two aircraft carrier groups to the Gulf and charges by Bush and
other senior officials that Tehran is secretly providing deadly explosive devices
to its allies in Iraq that have allegedly killed some 170 U.S. soldiers there
A number of analysts, including some retired military and intelligence officers,
have told reporters they believe the administration may be trying to provoke
an incident that would provide a pretext for Washington to launch attacks on
Iran’s suspected nuclear sites and other targets as early as next month as a
way of both setting back Tehran’s nuclear program and limiting its ability to
retaliate against the U.S. or its regional allies.
Such speculation has been vigorously denied by senior officials, particularly
Secretary Robert Gates and the chairman of the Joint
Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Peter Pace, even while Vice-President Dick Cheney
and other hawks have continued to insist that "all options are on the table"
in dealing with Tehran’s nuclear program or its alleged support for anti-U.S.
Shi’ite militias in Iraq.
At the same time, Democrats – including leading presidential candidates, such
as Senators Hillary Clinton, Barack
Obama, and Joseph Biden – as well
as some influential Republicans such as Senators John
Warner and Chuck Hagel, have been
pressing hard on the administration to embrace the ISG recommendation for direct
talks with Iran and Syria to help stabilize Iraq and thus permit Washington
to begin extracting its troops from what most analysts and an ever-larger majority
of the public has come to see as a quagmire.
Any diplomatic engagement with Iran, however, has been strongly opposed by
administration hawks, particularly in Cheney’s office and the National
Security Council, as well as their mainly neoconservative
supporters outside the government who led a carefully orchestrated effort to
discredit the ISG even before it released its recommendations in early December.
But the hawks suffered a major defeat over the past month when, at Rice’s
behest, Bush authorized direct bilateral talks between the U.S. and North Korea
for the first time and then signed off on a multilateral accord whereby Pyongyang
agreed to shut down its main nuclear facility and permit the return of inspectors
from the International Atomic Energy Agency
(IAEA) in exchange for economic aid, the lifting of some financial sanctions,
and the launch of a process that, if completed, would lead to U.S. diplomatic
recognition – effectively giving up on a "regime-change" strategy
urged by the hawks.
They have since complained that Rice short-circuited the normal policy-making
process by going directly to Bush to gain approval of the North Korea initiative
without any major inter-agency review that would have given them an opportunity
to modify or shoot down the deal.
The question now is whether Rice’s ostentatious endorsement of the ISG’s call
for engaging Iran – even if it is nominally at the Iraqi government’s initiative
and within the narrow framework of Iraq’s security – marks a similar strategic
shift that could reverse the recent trajectory toward confrontation with Tehran,
or whether it represents a mere tactical maneuver designed to soothe an increasingly
anxious Congress and pre-empt any move on its part to rein in the administration.
On this question, some critics were cautiously optimistic Tuesday, with Hagel
calling the proposed meetings "an important first step" and Biden
expressing the hope that "clearer heads in the administration are beginning
More skeptically, Senate Majority Leader
Harry Reid also described the announcement as "a first step, but …not
enough on its own. Our national security requires a robust diplomatic effort
in the Middle East, and the Bush administration cannot again settle for mere
half measures," he said.
Noting recent changes in key policy-making positions that have favored "realists"
over administration hawks, as well as strong indications that the military brass
is "very, very, very opposed …to picking a fight with Iran," one acute
observer of U.S. policy suggested that Tuesday’s statements could indeed signal
a strategic shift.
"Since President Bush has shown the ability to change his mind, if not
his heart, on North Korea," noted Chris Nelson, publisher and editor of
insider newsletter The
Nelson Report, Tuesday night, "one must ask if Rice’s announcement
today shows that the President realizes...at a minimum...that if he has a chance
to resolve Iraq, it cannot come while pursuing a crisis with Iran. One crisis
at a time, in other words.’’
(Inter Press Service)