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."
"The administration may realize that in the wake of the Iraq war the U.S. position vis-à-vis Iran is relatively weak in the region," according to Ivan Eland of the Center for Peace and Liberty, a division of the libertarian-oriented Independent Institute. "It is just possible that the president would rather go out of office on a peacemaking note. It is also likely that he has been informed that one of the ways Iran might retaliate to a military strike could be by directly or indirectly killing a lot more Americans in Iraq, which would put a tarnish on an enterprise he can plausibly call a partial success now."
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. She also noted, as I and several others have previously, the multiplicity of diplomatic initiatives underway in the Middle East independently of the U.S. Israel-Hamas, Israel-Syria, Israel-Lebanon, and Qatar brokering a Lebanese truce. Bluster isn’t working, so it might be time for a different approach.
Whatever the reasons, in this reading, sending the third-ranking U.S. diplomat to meet face-to-face with an Iranian is a fairly significant shift in the U.S. government’s approach to Iran. One shouldn’t overestimate the magnitude of the shift, of course. Viewed from a larger perspective it’s a tactical move. The U.S. will sit in the same room, and it seems likely to agree, if Iran does, to the "mutual freeze" proposal in which Iran doesn’t increase nuclear enrichment and the U.S. and Europeans don’t seek additional sanctions for six weeks, during which the sides chat a little about whether further negotiations are worth pursuing. The State Department statement was a bit less conciliatory than the White House response, but the bottom line was similar. The U.S. won’t do "real" negotiations until Iran suspends nuclear enrichment. That could change over time, as U.S. preconditions were sometimes elided during talks with the North Koreans that eventually led (we think) to the hermit kingdom stopping its nuclear weapons programs.
Combined with the news that the U.S. plans to establish a diplomatic presence (though not an actual embassy) in Iran for the first time since the 1979-1981 U.S. embassy hostage crisis, these could be the first tentative moves toward establishing a more-or-less normal relationship with Iran, one that relies more on diplomatic and economic tools to deter Iran from developing nuclear weapons (or to cope if they do so anyway) than on the kind of "preventive" war that didn’t pan out so well or took longer than expected to pan out if you take an administration-sympathetic point of view in less formidable Iraq. A sense of the variety of ways Iran could retaliate through Hezbollah and other proxies, through blockading the Hormuz Straits, through killing U.S. soldiers in Iraq might have taken the military option effectively off the table, though it might be rhetorically preserved in occasional statements about all options being available.
Some outlets are reading this as a triumph for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who has reportedly been working hard behind the scenes to make this meeting happen. It could be that Rice, who, notwithstanding her sometimes faulty judgment and her somewhat puzzling devotion to George W. Bush, is no fool, saw a touch of peacemaking as a good way to take some of the tarnish off her legacy (and Dubya’s too). The Iranians were reportedly impressed to see her signature on the most recent missive from the six nations that proposed the mutual freeze and talks. She’s only 52, and she might see the rest of her life being potentially more productive if she isn’t seen as widely as she might now be as a pariah. (That’s my own speculation backed up by no firsthand evidence, so take it for what it’s worth.)
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. As I and others have noted, 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.