Iranian Rumblings

by , May 27, 2007

Even as the United States and Iran seem to be moving toward direct talks over the security situation in Iraq, the symbiotic relationship between President Bush and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is flourishing in ways that seem to guarantee continued hostility. President Bush in his al-Qaeda dominated news conference Thursday, did not neglect to mention that the administration will push the United Nations to adopt expanded economic and political sanctions against Iran, while Ahmadinejad announced that Iran will "never retreat, even one step," from its program of nuclear enrichment.

These two were made for each other, each providing a foil for the other’s preference to conduct international relations through posturing and grievance-mongering. There’s a possibility of an opening leading to more comprehensive discussions that could include diplomatic ways to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Unfortunately, both sides have also dug in their heels on certain issues, requiring a certain deftness in discussions of which neither side may be capable.

The comments from the two playground presidents came as the International Atomic Energy Agency offered an assessment that Iran has accelerated its enrichment program despite two UN Security Council resolutions demanding that it be suspended. Earlier, the IAEA concluded in a more preliminary fashion that Iran has solved certain technological problems that allow it to enrich uranium on a larger scale than before – though apparently quite far from the scale required to produce uranium enriched enough for a weapon.

Meanwhile, the first U.S.-Iran bilateral talks on trying to reduce the chaos in Iraq are scheduled for May 28 in Baghdad.

The Bush administration has declared that it will talk with Iran only about the security situation in Iraq, and not about any wider issues, like Iranian nuclear efforts or the deplorable human-rights situation in Iran. One complicating factor is that even the international nuclear non-proliferation treaty agreements allow signatories to pursue nuclear power for peaceful purposes, and while most observers are pretty sure Iran’s intention is to get a nuclear weapon, the regime still officially claims that peaceful purposes are all it has in mind.

Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (after a predictable warning against U.S. military action against Iran) has said that Iran is "ready and prepared" for talks with the United States, though he offered no details about the scope of talks. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, noting that the Iraqi government has urged the U.S. to engage directly with Iran, told reporters that "We’ve had that channel [for talks with Iran] for some time, and it seemed like a good time to activate it."

It would be prudent not to expect miracles from such talks. Iran has ambivalent motives toward Iraq: it seems likely that it has helped to stir up insurgency against U.S. forces just to discomfit the U.S. and make occupation difficult. But it also hopes to have a Shi’ite-dominated (and potentially friendly) government in control of a relatively stable Iraq. The U.S. must realize that the goal of making Iraq a stable and reliable ally is not likely in the foreseeable future, but that if Iraq’s neighbors desist from interfering, an Iraq that is not a base for jihadist terrorist activities is at least a possibility, if not one on which a prudent bettor would want to lay a lot of money.

So despite their many disagreements over an array of issues, the U.S. and Iran have at least a narrow range of mutual interests regarding a (relatively) stable Iraq. And if former CIA director George Tenet is accurate in his new book, At the Center of the Storm, here is a record of back-channel negotiations and communication between the two regimes over various terrorism-related issues. So if Iran and the United States are realistic, they could take steps toward an Iraq that is not a threat to its neighbors or the rest of the world. Recognizing that misunderstandings and missteps are not only possible but likely along the way, it still seems worth the risk to enter into talks toward that end.

It seems unlikely, but it would be even more helpful if talks regarding Iraq led to wider talks and eventually to consideration of reopening diplomatic and commercial relations. One can understand the emotional appeal of refusing to recognize countries of which one disapproves strongly, but the Godfather knew better. Keep your friends close – and your enemies closer.

If it were up to me, the United States would abandon what strikes me as the childish practice of refusing to recognize diplomatically countries with which it has serious disagreements. We managed to get through the Cold War without withdrawing diplomatic recognition from the Soviet Union. Diplomatic recognition should be more a recognition of reality – that a given regime, for better or for worse (and it’s for worse in almost all countries of the world) exercises effective governmental control over a region – than a Good Housekeeping seal of U.S. approval.

The U.S. is understandably concerned that Iran wants to be the dominant power in the Middle East and may be trying to acquire a nuclear weapon. Some Americans, including some still influential with the administration, are so concerned that they advocate preventive military action to disrupt Iran’s nuclear programs.

However, the U.S. knows less about what’s really going on inside Iran than we knew before we began the invasion of Iraq – and its lack of knowledge in that case has been a huge factor in the catastrophic outcome. One way to remedy this situation would be to reestablish an embassy in Tehran – Justin Logan of the Cato Institute told us it would be a "huge coup for the United States" – and commercial relations. Both would offer opportunities to gather more reliable intelligence, through both open and clandestine means. That would not only give us a better grasp of realistic options, it could give U.S. operatives an opportunity to influence the regime and/or establish better ties with disaffected elements.

For all Ahmadinejad’s bluster, the Iranian regime’s power is potentially precarious. State management of Iran’s huge oil reserves has led to declining revenues, and because of a lack of refinery capacity Iran actually has to import gasoline. There are plenty of pressure points, but it would help to know more to apply pressure effectively.

Unfortunately, the Bush administration trapped itself in a box by declaring it would not negotiate directly with Iran unless Iran stopped all uranium enrichment. That makes it almost impossible to change course without looking like a flip-flopper.

As unlikely as it now seems, negotiations over Iraq could provide a way to widen the scope of discussions. Despite its sometimes clueless rhetoric, one may hope the administration has this in mind. Even if it doesn’t, it could be laying the groundwork for a successor administration to adopt a more sensible approach to Iran, although the comments of most Democratic candidates to date suggest continued bellicosity.

* * * *

I am nowhere near as discouraged, disappointed, or as angry as some antiwar activists are, that Congress gave President Bush an Iraq-Afghanistan funding bill without timetables. It was eventually going to happen so long as Bush threatened to veto, and since he had discovered his veto pen on the last war funding bill (and on stem-cell research subsidies) there was every reason to expect him to use it again. The Democrats weren’t going to get a veto-proof majority in either house, and they didn’t want to be vulnerable to the charge that they were leaving troops in the field high-and-dry.

As liberal Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne put it, "Democrats, in short, have enough power to complicate the president’s life, but not enough to impose their will. Moreover, there is genuine disagreement even among Bush’s Democratic critics over what the pace of withdrawal should be and how to minimize the damage of this war to the country’s long-term interests. That is neither shocking nor appalling, but, yes, it complicates things. So does the fact that the minority wields enormous power in the Senate." For better or worse – and more often than not it’s for better – that is the American political system.

The time may come when Congress does cut off the funds, but I suspect that public opinion isn’t ready for it yet. That day may well be closer than many believe, however. The most recent N.Y. Times-CBS poll shows that "Americans now view the war in Iraq more negatively than at any time since the invasion more than four years ago …" Specifically 61 percent of Americans now think the U.S. should have stayed out of Iraq, while "76 percent say things are going badly there, including 47 percent who say things are going very badly …" However, at this point a majority of Americans still support financing the war so long as the Iraqi government meets certain goals.

Despite understandable disappointment at this particular outcome, I think progress was made. The Democrats remembered that they won the majority largely because of growing opposition to the war, and their positions became a bit more radical as the debate went on and they didn’t seem to pay any political price for at least talking about earlier and earlier withdrawal and more and more conditions on the effort. Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama voted against the bill, moving ever more firmly into the antiwar camp. And the funding is only through September, when another reevaluation will take place, probably at a time when the American public is even more ready for this absurd war to be over.

By September, more Republicans are going to be ready to have Iraq in the rearview mirror rather than in the headlights as the 2008 election approaches. I suspect Bush won’t end the war before he leaves office, unless something unlikely, like a stable Iraqi government and a lessening of insurgency and sectarian attacks occurs. He could be responsible for decimating the Republican Party for a generation.

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