Not the Best and the Brightest
David Ignatius, one of the best foreign policy analysts in the American press has been trying to rationalize his support for the Iraq war by arguing that President Bush and his aides actually know what they're doing and that things in Iraq and the Middle East will eventually work out for the best. Sort of. In a recent column in the Washington Post he even suggests that the Bushies, and in particular Secretary of State Condi Rice and national security advisor Stephen Hadley (who does LOOK -- those Big Glasses -- very smart) know what they're doing on Iran. He desecribes how the two are trying to figure out "how should the United States think about Iran? What explains the fanaticism of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and what can America and its allies do to change it?"
These baseline questions are at the heart of an informal review of Iran policy that's taking place at the highest levels of the Bush administration. The discussions, led by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and national security adviser Stephen Hadley, are an effort to anchor America's opposition to the Iranian nuclear program in a broader strategy. The goal is not simply to stop the Iranians from making a bomb but to change the character of a regime that under Ahmadinejad has swerved onto a new and dangerous track.
The administration wants to engage key allies in these Iran discussions. In the short run, the goal is to gain agreement among European allies, Russia and China that the International Atomic Energy Agency, at its meeting next month, should refer the Iranian nuclear issue to the U.N. Security Council. But over the longer term, the administration hopes these allies will work with Washington to change Iranian behavior on issues such as terrorism and regional stability. Officials don't like the Cold War term "containment," believing that it connotes a static policy, but the word suggests the strategic commitment they want on Iran.
Rice and Hadley recognize that the United States carries a lot of baggage in its dealings with Iran. They want to avoid, if possible, a situation that appears to be a Bush vs. Iran confrontation. The administration decided last year to work the nuclear problem through the European Union countries negotiating with Iran -- Britain, France and Germany -- in part to avoid making America the issue. Although the E.U. negotiations have failed to stop the Iranian nuclear program, administration officials hope to maintain a united front as the issue moves toward the United Nations.
Yadah, Yadah, Yadha...
And then there is this curious piece of info that should make us feel confident about these guys:
An intellectual benchmark in the Iran debate was a briefing given to officials last fall by Jack A. Goldstone, a professor at George Mason University who is an expert on revolutions. He argued that Iran wasn't conforming to the standard model laid out in Crane Brinton's famous study, "The Anatomy of Revolution," which argued that initial upheaval is followed by a period of consolidation and eventual stability. Instead, Ahmadinejad illustrated what Goldstone called "the return of the radicals." Something similar happened 15 to 20 years after the Russian and Chinese revolutions -- with Stalin's purges in the late 1930s and Mao's Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, Goldstone explained. He argued that Iran was undergoing a similar recrudescence of radicalism that, as in China and Russia, would inevitably trigger internal conflict.
The gist of Goldstone's analysis gradually percolated up to Rice, Hadley and others. What has intrigued policymakers is the argument that Ahmadinejad's extremism will eventually trigger a counterreaction -- much as the Cultural Revolution in China led to the pragmatism of Deng Xiaoping. Officials see signs that some Iranian officials -- certainly former president Hashemi Rafsanjani and perhaps also the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- are worried by Ahmadinejad's fulminations. Unless the Iranian president moderates his line, wider splits in the regime are almost inevitable, officials believe. They also predict that his extremism will be increasingly unpopular with the Iranian people, who want to be more connected with the rest of the world rather than more isolated.
Getting Iran policy right is the biggest foreign policy challenge of the new year. Ahmadinejad's wild statements have had the beneficial effect of concentrating the minds of policymakers, who in the past have often differed over Iran and have had trouble framing a formal policy. Officials don't yet have a clear strategy that could bend Iranian radicalism back toward an acceptable norm, but they're assessing the tools that might work. This time they are looking carefully -- and thinking seriously -- before they leap.
Yep. A real "intellectual benchmark." A briefing by an obscure professor. Now that's really going to make a BIG difference in our relationship with Iran.
But the New York Times carried on Tuesday a fascinating op-ed by former a senior member of the national security staff, Flynt Leverett (when Condi was the boss) explaining what could have made a really BIG difference in our relatioship with Iran:
AS the United States and its European partners consider their next steps to contain the Iranian nuclear threat, let's recall how poorly the Bush administration has handled this issue. During its five years in office, the administration has turned away from every opportunity to put relations with Iran on a more positive trajectory. Three examples stand out.
In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, Tehran offered to help Washington overthrow the Taliban and establish a new political order in Afghanistan. But in his 2002 State of the Union address, President Bush announced that Iran was part of an "axis of evil," thereby scuttling any possibility of leveraging tactical cooperation over Afghanistan into a strategic opening.
In the spring of 2003, shortly before I left government, the Iranian Foreign Ministry sent Washington a detailed proposal for comprehensive negotiations to resolve bilateral differences. The document acknowledged that Iran would have to address concerns about its weapons programs and support for anti-Israeli terrorist organizations. It was presented as having support from all major players in Iran's power structure, including the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. A conversation I had shortly after leaving the government with a senior conservative Iranian official strongly suggested that this was the case. Unfortunately, the administration's response was to complain that the Swiss diplomats who passed the document from Tehran to Washington were out of line.
Finally, in October 2003, the Europeans got Iran to agree to suspend enrichment in order to pursue talks that might lead to an economic, nuclear and strategic deal. But the Bush administration refused to join the European initiative, ensuring that the talks failed.
Now Washington and its allies are faced with two unattractive options for dealing with the Iranian nuclear issue. They can refer the issue to the Security Council, but, at a time of tight energy markets, no one is interested in restricting Iranian oil sales. Other measures under discussion - travel restrictions on Iranian officials, for example - are likely to be imposed only ad hoc, with Russia and China as probable holdouts. They are in any case unlikely to sway Iranian decision-making, because unlike his predecessor, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad disdains being feted in European capitals.
Alternatively, the United States (or Israel) could strike militarily at Iran's nuclear installations. But these are spread across Iran, and planners may not know all of the targets that would need to be hit. Moreover, a strike could prove counterproductive by hardening Iranian resolve to acquire a nuclear weapons capacity.
Too bad they didn't consult our Professor Jack A. Goldstone at that time...
Leverett proposes that one way to resolve the current diplomatic deadlock would be to create "a Gulf Security Council that would include Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the other Arab states in the Gulf, as well as the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council."
The Gulf Security Council would not replace American alliances with traditional security partners, but it would operate alongside them, much as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has operated alongside NATO. The council would provide a framework under which the United States could guarantee that it would not use force to change Iran's borders or form of government, provided that Iran committed itself to regionally defined and monitored norms for nonproliferation (including a nuclear weapons ban), counterterrorism and human rights. States concerned about Iran's nuclear activities would then have new leverage to ensure Iranian compliance with these commitments. Additionally, pressing Iran to abide by standards defined and administered multilaterally might be more acceptable to China and Russia than pushing Iran to accept an American reinterpretation of its nonproliferation obligations.
A very interesting idea. But I doubt very much that the Bushies are going to adopt anything that feels and smells (to the Weekly Standard and Company) like an "appeasement" of Iran. I'm not even sure that the Saudis will buy into it. They would prefer to see a U.S. confrontation with Iran.
I remain a proponent of a Bush-goes-to-Tehran like Nixon-goes-to-Beijing approach, a strategy I proposed in an article in the American Conservative. See also my more recent comments on the subject in the Christian Science Monitor.