Now it's definite: No attack on Iran

By Hannes Artens

IMG_3666There 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.

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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 180° 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.

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  • If Iran does not back down from enrichment will these moves just be proof that there is no talking to Iran and make the case for bombing them even stronger?

  • The Iranians were starting a “freeze for freeze” agreement initiated by the Europeans (no new sanctions, no advancement in enrichment). I’d be surprised if either side deviated from it. In the end I suspect either side will make some concessions and we end up with an agreement for heavily scaled back enrichment, heavily monitored enrichment, or multinational enrichment in Iran.

  • that by that time the clock will have run out on the Bush Admin and Obama (hopefully) will be president.

    “Is not our first thought to go on the road? The road is our source, our vault of treasures, our wealth. Only on the road does the ‘traveller’ feel like himself, at home.”
    Ryszard Kapuscinski

  • If I were Henry Paulson I would be pounding every table in the White House, insisting that any strike on Iran by either the U.S. or Israel has the potential to drive oil up to $200/bbl and convert a global recession into a depression just by the shock value alone. And this includes the probability that the U.S. would open up the SPR.

    Is it worth destroying Republican chances in November completely, and more importantly, bankrupting several major financial institutions, for a difficult air strike with dubious prospects of success?

    Your point that the November air strike was halted because of a looming recession is probably right, though it may be giving them too much credit. The economy did not start its swoon until October, and it was probably too early for the White House to see a recession by November because the data were just emerging and only partially hinted at a slowdown.

    As to the release of the NIE, it may be stretching things to call this a Bush administration event. It seems like it was orchestrated by forces within the administration and the civil service against Cheney and the neocons.

    Which leads to another interesting development. Normally it takes about a year or even two for a new president to be educated about what the office requires, and to begin performing with consistency. Often, at that point the new president begins adopting some of the foreign policy objectives of the previous administration, because they make sense, they conform to the broader wishes of our allies, and something can be achieved by them.

    Bush has wasted seven whole years on a fruitless and dangerous foreign policy, and only now is getting down to diplomacy and relationship-building and beginning to achieve something, as with North Korea and now possibly with Iran. Is this the work of his father’s implants like Gates? Do you think it is possible he can still pull out a magic trick with Israel and its enemies? How has Cheney been neutered during this process, especially since he had so many allies positioned in key parts of the bureaucracy?

    A further question for you: has a similar process been underway in Israel? It seems Olmert or some of his cabinet about a year ago began talking to Syria, and now we see this prisoner swap with Hezbollah, something that could have been done much earlier and avoided the disastrous war a few years ago. Something is going on here, and once again the neocons (or in this case Likudniks) have been pushed out into the cold.

    I wonder how coincidental all this is.

    Your post, Hannes, needs to be buzzflashed not simply for its important observations, but because more people could use a bit of cheering up in this bleak world.

  • Well, first, thanks for your praise.

    According to the information I have, and I have no reason to not believe my sources as they turn out to be right on pretty much everything, the Bush administration got a vague idea of what was about to come – economy-wise – in October 2007. True, that the NIE was written that way and that Cheney didn’t succeed in getting it rewritten was a little putsch by civil servants within the administration. But the decision to make it public that way in December was a deliberate one by the White House. Once it was there, they used it to save face and back-pedal on their martial rhetoric. For, you’re right, an attack on Iran would mean the end of the world economy as we know it. We both have been saying that for a year and a day.

    Well, Cheney, Douglas Feith and the bunch of neocons (although Cheney is none) have been neutered by events in Iraq. It’s an irony of history, though not an uncommon one, that the invasion of Iraq was the zenith of neocon power in Washington, yet at the same time, the beginning of their downfall.

    As welcome as this sea change with Iran is, no, I don’t see Bush facilitating a deal between the Palestinians and Israelis on time. For that his engagement simply is too little, too late.

    Matters are different with Syria. A deal with Assad could be reached today, if all parties were committed to it – one can hardly send out more positive signals than Assad. The problem here isn’t the US but Israel. Although Olmert would need something substantial – actually, something wonder of the world-sized – to survive, he’s too weak to sell any deal to the Israeli people. He’s too discredited to make a persuasive land-for-peace argument; he has no credibility to force such a deal through. So, alas, there things look as bleak as usual.

  • of respect for your views on Iran and would usually defer to them but I remember asking young pro-American youngsters when I was in Iran last year what they would do if they were attacked by us and they said, “of course, we would fight you. This is our home. We hate our government but love our people.”

    You may be right, and current events hopefully will preclude any such action, but still, when I am told that by someone who wants to live like an American, live IN America and have values and liberties such as Americans I cannot help but to take pause.

    “Is not our first thought to go on the road? The road is our source, our vault of treasures, our wealth. Only on the road does the ‘traveller’ feel like himself, at home.”
    Ryszard Kapuscinski

  • reinvested in the S&P is being ignored by Burns. Reinvested over this period, the S&P returned 43 times what it was in 1970. So it still beats oil, bad as the time seems.

    Here’s Scott Burns at your cite:

    “At more than 40 times its 1970 price, oil has outstripped the value created by a full working generation of Americans in a period of dramatic technological change and innovation. During the same time, the value of American business shares, as measured by the S&P 500 Index ($INX), has risen only about 15 times above its 1970 level.”

    And, of course, he is not counting the cost of getting the oil out of the ground.

  • what happens when oil hit’s $200/barrel? $300? Because that’s where I suspect it’s going.

    As for the temporary fall in the price of oil–don’t hold your breath waiting for it to get cheaper. Corn also fell a buck fifty a bushel but there’s no more corn today than there was two weeks ago and there’s no more oil being produced either. Both will soon be off to the races again.

    I did inhale.

  • But you have to consider the cost of getting it out and the time over which it will have to come out to get the value of your barrel price. The present value of the cash flow less costs is far less than you think.

    I’m surprised at Burns for going in that direction.

    It may be a good thought in that it tries to show how we’ve declined versus a commodity that has sustained us. But it needs more work.

  • Let’s hope this ray of hope materializes and the next major American opera will be “George W. Bush goes to Iran”.

    It is an odd incident that this came out the same day that this Spiegel article was published that reports on a major shift away from terrorism as acceptable means in Islamistic circles.

    If Spiegel won’t translate this for its English site sometime soon I will put together a short summary on the weekend.

  • By Leonard Doyle in Washington
    Friday, 18 July 2008

    Condoleezza Rice was George Bush’s handmaiden for the war in Iraq but she is now emerging as the best hope for avoiding a military conflict between the United States and Iran.

    The Secretary of State, who is one of the few people with the President’s ear, has shown the door to Vice-President Dick Cheney’s cabal of war-hungry advisers. Ms Rice was able to declare yesterday that the administration’s decision to break with past policy proves that there is international unity in opposing Iran’s nuclear programme. “The point that we’re making is the United States is firmly behind this diplomacy, firmly behind and unified with our allies and hopefully the Iranians will take that message,” Ms Rice said.

    Mr Bush’s decision to send the number three in the State Department, William Burns, to attend talks with Iran in Geneva at the weekend caused howls of outrage that were heard all the way from the State Department’s sanctuary of Foggy Bottom to the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue. A parallel initiative to reopen the interest’s section of the American embassy in Tehran, which would be the first return of a diplomatic presence on Iranian territory since 1979, has also received a cool response from neo-conservatives.

    “This is a complete capitulation on the whole idea of suspending enrichment,” said Mr Bush’s former UN envoy, John Bolton. “Just when the administration has no more U-turns to pull, it does another.”

    In public, Ms Rice has been as bellicose as any neo-con when it comes to Iran, calling dialogue with its leaders “pointless” and declaring: “For the sake of peace, the world must not allow Iran to have nuclear weapons.”

    She had been the prime mover behind Mr Bush’s disastrous policy of “preventive wars” and cheerleader of his expansive plans to reorganise the entire Middle East and to “export democracy”. But with the rumblings of war with Iran growing steadily louder, Ms Rice worked feverishly behind the scenes to stop sparks from flying in the drive by the US and Israel to shut down Iran’s nuclear programme.

    The breakthrough, if that is what it turns out to be, that persuaded Mr Bush that it was time to end the 30-year boycott of high-level diplomatic contacts with Iran, came from the simple act of Ms Rice signing her name to a joint letter offering sweeter terms to Tehran than it had seen before.

    The very act of putting her name to a package of incentives presented in Tehran last month persuaded the Iranian authorities that there was movement that would allow them to proclaim victory over the US, while ending their nuclear programme.

    When he saw Ms Rice’s signature on the document, Iran’s Foreign Minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, was visibly stunned, according to those present at the meeting. He formally responded to the offer with a letter addressed to Ms Rice and the EU’s foreign policy envoy, Javier Solana, as well as foreign ministers of the five other countries at the talks.

    His letter skirted around the hot-button issue of Iran’s uranium enrichment programme, but it contained an olive branch of an offer to “find common ground through logical and constructive actions”, according to reports.

    Hearing of Mr Mottaki’s reaction and then receiving a formal response persuaded Ms Rice that Iran was finally willing to have meaningful talks with the US that could avoid a war.


  • But there’s more than one chain of command in the region – and more than one US agenda in play. Policy can’t have a coherent and predictable shape; the traditional chain of command is threatening to dissolve into factions (if it indeed has not yet) with different agendas. Perhaps it may look today like some faction or the other (say Condi) has won their temporary point, but it’s not meaningful to declare it over yet. And it doesn’t take much to start a war.

    Preparing The Battlefield“, Seymour Hersh July 7, 2008

    … Fallon’s early retirement, however, appears to have been provoked not only by his negative comments about bombing Iran but also by his strong belief in the chain of command and his insistence on being informed about Special Operations in his area of responsibility. … “He was charged with coming up with an over-all coherent strategy for Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and, by law, the combatant commander is responsible for all military operations within his A.O.”—area of operations. “That was not happening,” Sheehan said. “When Fallon tried to make sense of all the overt and covert activity conducted by the military in his area of responsibility, a small group in the White House leadership shut him out.”

    … The degradation of the traditional chain of command in the past few years has been a point of tension between the White House and the uniformed military.

    “The coherence of military strategy is being eroded because of undue civilian influence and direction of nonconventional military operations,” Sheehan said. “If you have small groups planning and conducting military operations outside the knowledge and control of the combatant commander, by default you can’t have a coherent military strategy. You end up with a disaster, like the reconstruction efforts in Iraq.”

    Admiral Fallon, who is known as Fox, was aware that he would face special difficulties as the first Navy officer to lead CENTCOM, which had always been headed by a ground commander, one of his military colleagues told me. He was also aware that the Special Operations community would be a concern. “Fox said that there’s a lot of strange stuff going on in Special Ops, and I told him he had to figure out what they were really doing,” Fallon’s colleague said. “The Special Ops guys eventually figured out they needed Fox, and so they began to talk to him. Fox would have won his fight with Special Ops but for Cheney.”


    …The White House’s reliance on questionable operatives, and on plans involving possible lethal action inside Iran, has created anger as well as anxiety within the Special Operations and intelligence communities. JSOC’s operations in Iran are believed to be modelled on a program that has, with some success, used surrogates to target the Taliban leadership in the tribal territories of Waziristan, along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. But the situations in Waziristan and Iran are not comparable…

    One of the most intensely hardline factions in Washington essentially has its own military chain of command, its own troops, and a Presidential Finding as a hunting license. It wants a war badly, and it certainly has the means to start one all on its own if necessary.

    “The best-informed man is not necessarily the wisest. Indeed there is a danger that precisely in the multiplicity of his knowledge he will lose sight of what is essential.”

    – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

  • There seem to have been a lot of stories about weird things (like the Minot North Dakota nuke incident, the CIA Carnaby Houston incident, the Hersh case), all of which should warn us to be careful because, especially in matters of war, Washington is still a mesh of surly and violent power networks. Still, this puts good pillars in against further escalation from the covert (Baluchi etc) wars already unfolding, with the furtive help of SAIC and others, or so they say…

  • Condoleezza Rice may have a bright political future ahead, despite the many roles she has played in the discredited Bush White House. Her soundbites have often come back to haunt her. She wilfully distorted the truth while pressing the case for the invasion of Iraq: “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” No one, she declared, “could have predicted” that al-Qai’da would try to fly planes into buildings before 11 September 2001; “I’m proud of the decision of this administration to overthrow Saddam Hussein,” she said. And when George Bush asked her about the looming war saying: “Should we do this?”, Ms Rice replied in a heartbeat “Yes.” The book Rise of the Vulcans, by James Mann, describes Ms Rice as a major player in the Iraq war, detailing how she served as the White House co-ordinator and as the President’s closest adviser, throughout the entire operation. Despite this, the future looks bright for the 52-year-old. Stopping a war with Iran could even catapult her into the vice-presidency under a John McCain presidency.

  • Asia Times

    Iran is not ripe for regime change as any attack on the country would rally people around the government, not alienate them, an influential new report in the United States finds. These conclusions run counter to the neo-conservative argument, but fit with the George W Bush administration’s newfound engagement, albeit limited, of Tehran. – David Isenberg (Jul 18, ’08)

  • Who ever he is, he needs to get updated. I will assure you, that Iranians are distinct from Seyyeds, and will not fight their war. Seyyeds will fight for Hamas and Hezbollah, but Iranians won’t. If you are really game, come over to any Iranian forum and I will post something about this, and you can see for yourself.

  • The news is good but until there are actually US diplomats put into Iran this could quickly unravel. And even then with this crew you’ll never know. But establishing diplomatic relations will certainly make an imminent war much less likely. Let’s keep the fingers crossed that this will unfold as reported.

    One thing is for certain the oil market seems to buy into the story.

  • As soon as any rapproachment took place the oil price fell. This was all done with the folks over at the Foreign Ministry or the reform minded Seyyeds. But the FM’s job is to buy time. The die-hards Seyyed neocons of the likes of Jannati and Mesbah Yazdi go by the booK. And the Seyyeds have a cause, and that cause will force the IRGC to rumble more and get the oil price up. That will please ironically please the US neocons. This has been going on for a long time. But the US economy is hurting with the oil price being so high. So they want to sit down. But it’s all a mirage.

  • the more strongly convinced I am that this Administration believes the complete opposite.

    They make their own reality, don’cha know. I’ll bet the place where it gets “made” looks like a meth lab.

    “The best-informed man is not necessarily the wisest. Indeed there is a danger that precisely in the multiplicity of his knowledge he will lose sight of what is essential.”

    – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

  • Asia Times is pro Seyyed, and are anti-US, especially that guy Afrasiabi.

    Fact is that the people of Iran gave a big thumbs down, at the last Seyyed self-selection, via mass abstention. Nowadays no mullah dares to walk the streets without a bodyguard or get into a taxi.

    The problem we have is that the western press just does not want to see the Iranians that put Iran first. The world has decided to ignore the modern Iranian intelligencia, that look beyond politics, religion and want to build a new modern country. The world does not want Iran to be the next Japan of West Asia. That is the bigger long-term threat. So the neocons want Iran to become a pariah state.

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