US lends Iran a listening ear
WASHINGTON - In the seemingly never-ending internal battle between hawks and realists in the administration of US President George W Bush for control of foreign policy, the realists appear to have chalked up another win over their once-dominant foes.
The decision to send the State Department's third-ranking official to Geneva on Saturday to join talks between the other four permanent members of the United Nations Security (France, China, Russia and Britain) and Germany, on the one hand, and Iran, one of the three charter members of Bush's "axis of evil", on the other, marks a significant relaxation of administration policy which, until now, had insisted it would not participate in direct talks until Tehran froze its uranium-enrichment program.
Combined with other recent actions and statements by senior administration officials, the move also strongly suggests that Bush intends to leave office next January without launching yet another military attack against a predominantly Islamic nation, even if the future of Iran's nuclear program remains unsettled by the time of his departure.
"What this does show is how serious we are when we say that we want to try to solve this diplomatically," Bush spokesperson Dana Perino told reporters in confirming that Under Secretary of State for Policy William Burns will sit at the same table with Iran's nuclear envoy Saeed Jalili, even if his role will formally be confined to "listening", as the White House insists.
Analysts compare the latest move to the realists' victory over the hawks, whose most influential member inside the administration has been Vice President Dick Cheney, to the evolution of US policy toward North Korea's nuclear program since late 2006 when Pyongyang exploded a nuclear device.
Shortly afterward, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice helped convince Bush to drop his opposition to direct engagement with Pyongyang in order to revive the stalled six-party talks that were launched in 2003 to persuade Kim Jong-il to abandon his nuclear program.
She was aided in that quest by the other members of the process - most notably China and South Korea, as well as Japan and Russia - who had long argued that the talks were unlikely to make progress unless Washington engaged Pyongyang directly.
Despite repeated howls of protest and cries of "appeasement" by the hawks, most recently given voice by former UN ambassador John Bolton in a searing column, "The Tragic End of Bush's North Korea Policy", published by the Wall Street Journal this month, Bush has stuck by his decision to give Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher Hill the flexibility he has requested to give new life to the talks.
Similarly, hawks, most especially Bolton, who is widely seen as representing Cheney's views, have complained loudly about the evolution of Bush's Iran policy since Rice persuaded the president in May 2006 to offer to join multilateral negotiations over Tehran's nuclear program if Iran suspended its enrichment program. Until then, Bush had heeded hardliners who argued that direct talks would be seen as legitimizing the regime and demoralize its opposition.
As in the North Korea case, Rice was aided by Washington's foreign partners - in this case, the European Union-3 (France, Germany and Britain), Russia and China - who argued that they were unlikely to make any progress in persuading Tehran to freeze its program unless the US at least made a conditional offer to join the talks.
Despite co-sponsoring two rounds US-sponsored UN Security Council resolutions imposing sanctions on Tehran for failing to comply with their demands to freeze uranium enrichment, those same powers have since successfully prodded Washington to make a series of other concessions, including offering more attractive carrots as part of a negotiating package designed to lure Iran into compliance, to get negotiations started.
When these did not have the desired effect, however, they privately urged the administration to modify its pre-condition in a way that would permit Washington to at least sit at the table in the forthcoming talks with Iran over their latest proposal - the so-called "freeze-for-freeze", a simultaneous suspension of international sanctions and uranium enrichment - as set forth by their chief negotiator and the European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana.
Even before the State Department confirmed that Burns would attend Saturday's talks, Bolton was complaining bitterly on the Journal's editorial page on Tuesday about what he and his fellow-hawks consider a disastrous sell-out, blaming the EU-3 and the State Department for "failed diplomacy". He argued that if Iran proceeds with what the hawks are convinced is a nuclear arms program aimed at Israel, it will change the "Middle East, and indeed global, balance of power ... in potentially catastrophic ways".
To redress the situation, he called for the US to attack Iran's nuclear installations or, at the least, to "place no obstacles in Israel's path" if it decides to carry out such an attack.
That Bolton could be both so scathing and so apocalyptic even before the Burns announcement suggests that the hawks are increasingly despairing about their ability to influence, let alone regain control of, US Iran policy between now and the end of Bush's tenure.
Indeed, as noted by Gary Sick, an Iran specialist at Columbia University who worked in the National Security Council under presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, Bolton's analysis of the direction of US policy and the balance of power within the administration is "unerringly accurate".
Indeed, despite the ritual invocation that "all options are on the table" with respect to Iran, several moves in recent weeks have suggested a more accommodating policy, not least the unrebutted suggestion by unnamed senior State Department officials that Washington should open an Interests Section in Tehran.
In addition, the official reaction to Iran's recent missile launches, voiced by Burns himself, was unexpectedly muted.
But perhaps most significant was a series of statements by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, after a visit to Israel late last month that any attack on Iran - whether by the US or Israel - would be destabilizing to the region and "extremely stressful" on his military forces. He also called for a "broad dialogue with Iran".
At the same time, Pentagon chief Robert Gates, who has made little secret of his desire to engage Tehran, ordered one of the two aircraft carrier groups stationed in the Gulf to deploy instead to the Arabian Sea off Pakistan in light of the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. The move not only helped underline the military's conviction that the border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan have become the "central front" in the "war on terror", but also appeared designed to reduce tensions with Iran.
Jim Lobe's blog on US foreign policy, and particularly the neo-conservative influence in the Bush administration, can be read at http://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe/.
(Inter Press Service)