Thursday, July 24, 2008

Three reasons for Bush's shift on Iran

As far as I'm concerned, the third option is the only realistic one. It immediately came to mind when I heard that we were sending a high-ranking state department official to Geneva for talks with Iran's nuclear envoy. The other options don't add up with this administration, which has demonstrated complete indifference to diplomacy and an utter lack of forethought where it's agenda is concerned.--Pete

Alan Bock, Antiwar
There seem to be two possibilities, according to several experts and sources I talked to last week, to explain the fact that the United States decided to have Undersecretary of State William Burns, the third-ranking person in the State Department, sit in the same room with Iranian nuclear envoy Saeed Jalili and high-ranking diplomats from five other countries in Geneva on Saturday. Well, maybe there's a third possibility.

The first, of course, is that the Bush administration is in the beginning stages of a relatively dramatic turnaround in its approach to Iran. As Ted Carpenter, vice president for foreign policy and defense studies at the libertarian Cato Institute, told me, "Perhaps they understand that a military option is simply not realistic, or too unpredictable, and as with North Korea, have been dragged into diplomacy.". . .

Marina Ottaway, who heads Middle East studies at the generally realist/liberal Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told me the Bush administration has to be aware that it is increasingly isolated in foreign policy, especially in the Gulf region. At the UN, Russia and China effectively prevent the most severe of sanctions being imposed multilaterally. And the Gulf countries, which fear they would be among the first victims of Iranian retaliation in the event of military action, are not following where the U.S. in its more hard-line mood wants to lead, so the U.S. is not leading anything or anyone. . .

There's another way to interpret the administration's move, however. It could be that a decision has been made to take some kind of military action against Iran – or to facilitate an Israeli action to ensure that it does enough damage to matter – before the administration leaves office. Under this possibility, even the Cheney-neocon cabal understands that it would be better, before a military strike is undertaken, to be able to say that we tried the diplomatic option, we talked, we met, we discussed, but the other side was just too intransigent, too unyielding, too unreasonable, and ultimately too potentially dangerous to leave us any choice but to strike them militarily.

As Ted Carpenter put it to me, "the hawks might want to be able to say they gave Iran one last chance, and made it clear to Iran during the talks that it was their last chance to stop doing provocative nuclear stuff," (however much the Iranians claim it's for electricity, not bombs). He suggested to me that one signal that option two was the real plan might be if Defense Secretary Robert Gates or Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Michael Mullen resigns, as their public statements have suggested that they are both quite opposed to military action against Iran, at least in the near future.

The wild card in all this, of course, is Israel. . . It would be difficult for Israel to carry out a minimally effective strike (one that does enough damage to Iran's bomb-making capacity to at least delay its ability to build deliverable nuclear weapons) without close cooperation from the United State – refueling over Iraqi airspace, needing rescue helicopters based in Iraq, etc. There's a possibility that this slight diplomatic opening to Iran has been accompanied by a stern word to the Israelis to keep their warplanes sheathed. But there's also the possibility that Israel could find ways to deliver damaging-to-devastating strikes without open U.S. cooperation.

The third possibility is that the administration hasn't decided yet what to do, but has decided that this gambit gives it the most options. If negotiations suggest that the Iranians are not eager to see military action and are willing to make some concessions on nuclear enrichment (maybe getting some supplies suitable for civilian use from a third party under strictly monitored conditions?), then the diplomatic option would go forward. If the Iranians in private negotiations – the kind that don't have to be followed up by a press conference where both sides mouth milky platitudes – sound more like the provocative Ahmadinejad than the more practical mullahs, the military option could still be exercised, perhaps after the November U.S. elections. Early reports from the Saturday meetings suggest that the Iranians were not inclined to yield much at this stage. An apparent two-week deadline for the Iranians to show some flexibility leaves this option quite open; things could go either way.

That third option might well turn out to be the most likely, which would be reason to keep the champagne on ice for a while and not pop the corks just yet.

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