By now the structure of the U.S. game with Iran
is clear. In the first move, the United States and Iran make some small progress
toward improved relations. In the counter move, hardliners in the United States
and Israel launch attacks against Iran in order to sabotage these improving
In the latest iteration of this game, the U.S. State Department has made an
interesting gambit. It announced that Undersecretary of State William Burns
would sit at the table on July 20 as members of the European Union entered
into talks with Iran over its nuclear program. At the same time, the United
States has been reported to be considering opening a formal American interests
section in Tehran. These two actions will be the first serious public diplomatic
activities between the two nations in nearly three decades. (Three earlier
meetings in Baghdad between U.S. Iraqi Envoy Ryan Crocker and Iranian Ambassador
to Iraq Hassan Kazemi-Qomi focused on security in Iraq).
The counter moves came fast and furious. First, former UN ambassador and prominent
neoconservative John Bolton launched a jeremiad against the U.S. government
on July 15 in the Wall Street Journal. Criticizing the administration
for failing to act militarily against Iran, Bolton placed his hopes on Israel
to carry out the military attack that he fervently desires. "Instead of
debating how much longer to continue five years of failed diplomacy, we should
be intensively considering what cooperation the U.S. will extend to Israel
before, during, and after a strike on Iran," he
Following closely on Bolton's editorial, the New York Times printed
attack against Iran on Friday, July 18, just one day before the opening
of the European talks, by Benny Morris, an historian at Ben-Gurion University.
Like Bolton, Morris presents an Iranian nuclear weapons program as an established
fact, implies that Iran would make a first-strike attack on Israel, and thus
justifies preemptive military action on Israel's part.
Both Bolton and Morris base their attacks on false premises. Diplomatic dealings
with Iran have, in fact, succeeded on the few occasions they have been tried.
There is no proof anywhere that Iran actually has a nuclear weapons program
at present, a fact underscored by the National Intelligence Estimate of December
2007. In fact, Iran's nuclear experiments are still at a primitive level, far
from any possibility of manufacturing weapons. Iran has never directly threatened
Israel and is not likely considering a first strike against Israel.
Such attacks have followed every minuscule improvement in U.S-Iranian relations
during the Bush administration. Every first move in a warming trend – such
as Iranian support for the U.S. war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, U.S.
aid to Iran during the Bam earthquake in 2003, and Iran's formal offer to enter
into comprehensive negotiations with the United States in 2003 – has been followed
by sharp criticism from both inside and outside of the Bush administration.
Detractors have countered these advances with accusations of Iranian support
for Hezbollah and Hamas, and support for "special groups" attacking
U.S. forces in Iraq. True to form, the U.S. military announced the launching
of a new crackdown on weapons smuggling from Iran to coincide with the Saturday
None of these accusations, along with the Iranian weapons program and plot
to launch a first-strike against Israel, has ever been proven. The most memorable
of these attacks was the labeling of Iran as part of the "Axis of Evil"
in President George Bush's 2002 State of the Union Address, just as Iran's
military aid to the United States was beginning to create a climate of trust
between the two nations.
Bolton, Morris, and their ilk may represent the last, weak gasp of the hawks
who would embroil the United States and Israel in a disastrous confrontation
with Iran. Indeed, for the time being, it seems that cooler heads are prevailing.
Though Western commentators described the talks at the one-shot Saturday meeting
negatively as a "deadlock," William Burns' official presence at the
table was an important benchmark. Iran did not accept the Western proposals
on the spot, but was given two weeks to respond. The Iranians appeared pleased.
Saeed Jalili, Iran's chief negotiator, called the negotiating process a "very
Despite this progress, the power of the American and Israeli extremists should
not be underestimated. They still have the ear of Vice President Dick Cheney
and a dwindling coterie of his supporters in the Department of Defense. A group
of Israeli politicians, including Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Israeli
Defense Force Chief of Staff Gaby Ashkenazi, has arrived in Washington, according
to Mother Jones magazine, presumably to convince the Bush administration
to allow them to carry out their attack.
Hostile rhetoric against Iran also plays into the U.S. electoral process.
For American politicians, Iran is a universal bogeyman, useful in an election
year as a device to show elected officials as tough on foreign miscreants.
Indeed, since the Iranian Revolution, U.S.-Iranian relations have been a centerpiece
in election debates. Conspiracy theorists believe fervently that the Republican
Party engineered an "October Surprise" in 1980 with Iranian officials
– delaying the release of the American hostages until after the U.S. presidential
election – and thus denied Jimmy Carter a second term. The purported event
– true or not – has supplied a permanent political term for American elections.
In every presidential election since, U.S.-Iranian relations have been featured
in presidential debates and campaign ads, with universal negativity toward
Iran. This year is no exception with Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John
McCain all expressing hostile attitudes toward Iran. And this year's October
Surprise is the rumor that the Bush administration will bomb Iran just before
the election to give a boost to John McCain. Unless the Israeli hawks get there
Reprinted courtesy of Foreign Policy in