By Hannes Artens
There has been endless jabber in the blogsphere about a possible October surprise, an attack on Iran to strengthen John McCain’s bid for the White House. After last week’s Iranian missile tests in response to an earlier Israeli air force exercise that included in-flight re-fueling operations, the media was abuzz with speculations about Israel possibly going it alone. Now it’s definite, almost official: there won’t be an attack on Iran during the remainder of President Bush’s tenure.
What evidence I have to make such a claim? None. What crucial factors I can cite to base my take on? Three.
First, yesterday evening, The Guardian revealed that the Bush White House is to announce next month the opening of an US interests section in Tehran, thus re-establishing direct diplomatic relations with Iran after almost thirty years.
Second, at Saturday’s talks in Geneva between the EU-3 and Iran, the US will be represented by Undersecretary of State, William Burns. For the first time US and Iranian negotiators will officially meet one-on-one to discuss the latter’s nuclear enrichment.
Third, according to Anthony Cordesman, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen was sent to Israel ten days ago to tell Tel Aviv quite frankly that the U.S. would neither approve nor green-light an Israeli solo run.
The first development is such a fundamental, unexpected sea change in US policy, I had to rub my eyes when reading it. Still bowled over, I quote from The Guardian:
The US is planning to establish a diplomatic presence in Tehran for the first time in 30 years, a remarkable turnaround in policy by president George Bush who has pursued a hawkish approach to Iran throughout his time in office.
The Guardian has learned that an announcement will be made in the next month to establish a US interests section in Tehran, a halfway house to setting up a full embassy. The move will see US diplomats stationed in the country.
The return of US diplomats to Iran is dependent on agreement by Tehran. But president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad indicated earlier this week that he is not against the opening of a US mission, saying Iran will consider favourably any request aimed at boosting relations between the two countries.
Creation of a US interest section would see diplomats stationed in Tehran for the first time since the hostage crisis … the special interests section would be similar to the one in Havana, Cuba. The US broke off relations with Cuba in 1961 after Castro’s take-over but US diplomats returned in 1977.
The special interests section carries out all the functions of an embassy. It is in terms of protocol part of the Swiss embassy but otherwise is staffed by Americans and independent of the Swiss.
If last December’s NIE weren’t evidence enough, this step should prove to the most diehard Cassandras that a military strike is definitely off the table. The US would hardly send diplomats to Tehran in August just to call them back again in October. I dare not hope, but it seems as if instead of unleashing a The Writing on the Wall-like conflagration that sets the whole Middle East afire, the Bush administration – in which it appears Secretary Rice has finally dealt the Cheney fraction a knock out punch – is resolved to foster a diplomatic solution for the Iranian issue until January 2009. More concerned with his personal legacy than with the neocons’ imperialistic pipe dreams, President Bush seems resolved to brake the longstanding stalemate and hold out the prospect to the Iranians of giving them what they always asked for: to no longer have to deal with proxies but sit down with the US face-to-face.
In line with this radical change in strategy the dispatch of William Burns to Geneva is to be seen. The New York Times sums up:
The decision by the Bush administration to send a senior American official to participate in international talks with Iran this weekend reflects a double policy shift in the struggle to resolve the impasse over the country’s nuclear program.
First, the Bush administration has decided to abandon its longstanding position that it will only meet face-to-face with Iran after it first suspends uranium enrichment as demanded by the United Nations Security Council.
Second, it infuses the negotiating track between Iran on the one side and the six global powers – France, Britain, Germany, Russia, China and the United States – on the other with new importance, even though their official stance is that no substantive talks can begin until the uranium enrichment stops.
The presence of William J. Burns, the under secretary of state for political affairs, at the meeting led by Javier Solana, the European Union foreign policy chief, and Saeed Jalili, Iran’s nuclear negotiator, in Geneva on Saturday brings with it both symbolic and substantive significance.
Therewith the Bush administration has not only answered the EU-3’s prayers, who pleaded for a direct US engagement as the best incentive for years, it has also put the ball clearly in Iran’s court. Now it is Iran’s to show its colors. Was the Iranian nuclear program intended as a means to compel the international community, and primarily the US, to come to terms with the Islamic Republic’s claim to be recognized as a regional power in the Persian Gulf and to force them into dialogue as equals – as I, Ray Takeyh, and Trita Parsi among others have consistently claimed – or as an attempt to lay hands on a doomsday weapon? Not even the Bush administration’s fiercest critics can doubt the US having done the first significant step towards a rapprochement. In response, at the minimum Iran should now agree to suspend its enrichment program for a limited time, giving room for a moratorium on how to proceed from here. If Iran spurns this unique outreach and meets it with empty rhetoric and delaying tactics, we’ll at least know what we’re dealing with.
As the Financial Times opines:
Mr Burns’ presence with his counterparts in Geneva shows Washington supports the generous carrots being offered to encourage Tehran to stop the programme. The ball is now very firmly in the Iranian court. The package of international economic support, security guarantees and help with its civilian nuclear programme now on offer is one that Tehran should embrace.
There is an opportunity here for Iran to grasp. It can continue to pursue its nuclear enrichment programme against the will of the international community and suffer further economic and political isolation, with possible costs for the regime’s own stability. Or it could embrace a settlement that offers economic opportunity and the prospect that Iran can begin to assume its rightful position among the community of nations.
Chances are that this welcome 180Â° change of mind within the Bush administration resulting in a once-every-thirty-years thaw – that as a convenient side effect also takes the wind out of Barack Obama’s sails and deprives him of one of his most cogent arguments; it can’t be coincidence that The Guardian noted that John McCain was involved in the decision process – might be more dictated by needs than inner conviction. As I’ve written here numerous times and explained at great length at every whistle stop of my author’s tour, we came within a whisker of war with Iran last September. But in September something fundamental changed: the greater economic parameters. The Bush administration got aware of a severe recession looming on the horizon and pulled the emergency break by allowing the NIE to become public. This week’s developments are just a consequence of the painful awareness that neither a porous sanctions regime nor a no longer credible military threat are maintainable.
This reality finally seems to have registered with Israel, too. As ArmsControlWonk has to report, Anthony Cordesman – a dying creed, sober Kissinger-generation, conservative realist, and former national security advisor of John McCain – accompanied CJCS Adm. Mullen to Israel to deliver President Bush’s message:
Cordesman is visiting Israel this week, and gave a lecture yesterday at Tel Aviv University and at Hebrew University on Sunday. He talked about Mullen’s comments last week in Washington when the Admiral said such an Israeli attack would be dangerous and could destabilize the Middle East. Mullen spoke after returning from a visit to Israel, during which he met with Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi and other senior IDF officers.
Cordesman said Mullen came to Israel to deliver a message – that Israel did not have a green light to attack Iran and that it would not receive U.S. support for such a move.
According to Cordesman, Mullen was expressing the official opinion of the U.S. administration, including that of President George W. Bush and the National Security Council.
Now we can breathe a twister-sized sigh of relief. The danger of a catastrophic war has been avoided. What Iran’s response to this groundbreaking overture is going to be, the coming weeks will tell.
Hannes Artens is the author of The Writing on the Wall, the first anti-Iran-war novel.