Playing Games With Iran
by William O. Beeman
By now the structure of the U.S. game with Iran is clear. In the first move,
the United States and Iran make some
small progress toward improved relations. In the counter move, hardliners in
the United States and Israel launch attacks against Iran in order
to sabotage these improving relations.
In the latest iteration of
this game, the U.S. State Department has made an interesting gambit. It
announced that Undersecretary of State William Burns would sit at the table on
July 20 as members of the European Union entered into talks with Iran over its
At the same time, the United States has been reported to be
considering opening a formal American Interests Section in Tehran.
These two actions will be
the first serious public diplomatic activities between the two nations in
nearly three decades. (Three earlier meetings in Baghdad
between U.S. Iraqi Envoy Ryan Crocker and Iranian Ambassador to Iraq Hassan Kazemi-Qomi focused on security in Iraq).
The counter-moves came fast
and furious. First, former UN ambassador and prominent neoconservative John
Bolton launched a jeremiad against the U.S. government on July 15 in the
Wall Street Journal. Criticizing the administration for failing to act
militarily against Iran,
Bolton placed his hopes on Israel
to carry out the military attack that he fervently desires. "Instead of
debating how much longer to continue five years of failed diplomacy, we should
be intensively considering what cooperation the U.S.
will extend to Israel
before, during and after a strike on Iran," he wrote.
Following closely on
Bolton's editorial, The New York Times printed another attack against Iran on Friday, July 18, just one day before the
opening of the European talks, by Benny Morris, an historian at Ben-Gurion University. Like Bolton, Morris presents
an Iranian nuclear weapons program as an established fact, implies that Iran would make a first-strike attack on Israel, and thus justifies pre-emptive military
action on Israel's
and Morris base their attacks on false premises.
Diplomatic dealings with Iran have, in
fact, succeeded on the few occasions they have been tried. There is no proof
anywhere that Iran
actually has a nuclear weapons program at present, a fact underscored by the
National Intelligence Estimate of December 2007. In fact, Iran's nuclear
experiments are still at a primitive level, far from any possibility of
manufacturing weapons. Iran
has never directly threatened Israel
and is not likely considering a first strike against Israel.
Such attacks have followed
every minuscule improvement in U.S-Iranian relations during the Bush
administration. Every first move in a warming trend - such as Iranian support
for the U.S. war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, U.S. aid to Iran during
the Bam earthquake in 2003, and Iran's formal offer to enter into comprehensive
negotiations with the United States in 2003 - has been followed by sharp
criticism from both inside and outside of the Brush administration. Detractors
have countered these advances with accusations of Iranian support for Hezbullah and Hamas, and support
for "special groups" attacking U.S.
forces in Iraq. True to
form, the U.S. military
announced the launching of a new crackdown on weapons smuggling from Iran to
coincide with the Saturday talks,
None of these accusations,
along with the Iranian weapons program and plot to launch a first-strike
has ever been proven.
The most memorable of these
attacks was the labeling of Iran
as part of the "Axis of Evil" in President George Bush's 2002 State
of the Union Address, just as Iran's
military aid to the United
States was beginning to create a climate of
trust between the two nations.
Bolton, Morris, and their
ilk may represent the last, weak gasp of the hawks who would embroil the United States and Israel
in a disastrous confrontation with Iran. Indeed, for the time being,
it seems that cooler heads are prevailing. Though Western commentators
described the talks at the one-shot Saturday meeting negatively as a
William Burns' official
presence at the table was an important benchmark. Iran did not accept the Western
proposals on the spot, but was given two weeks to respond. The Iranians
appeared pleased. Saeed Jalili, Iran's
chief negotiator, called the negotiating process a "very beautiful
Despite this progress, the
power of the American and Israeli extremists should not be underestimated. They
still have the ear of Vice President Dick Cheney and a dwindling coterie of his
supporters in the Department of Defense. A group of Israeli politicians,
including Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Israeli Defense Force Chief of Staff Gaby Ashkenazi, have arrived in Washington, according to Mother Jones
magazine, presumably to convince the Bush administration to allow them to carry
out their attack.
Hostile rhetoric against Iran also plays into the U.S. electoral
process. For American politicians, Iran is a universal bogeyman,
useful in an election year as a device to show elected officials as tough on
foreign miscreants. Indeed, since the Iranian Revolution U.S.-Iranian relations
have been a centerpiece in election debates.
Conspiracy theorists believe
fervently that the Republican Party engineered an "October Surprise"
in 1980 with Iranian officials - delaying the release of the American Hostages
until after the U.S.
Presidential election - and
thus denied Jimmy Carter a second term.
The purported event — true
or not — has supplied a permanent political term for American elections.
In every presidential
election since, U.S.-Iranian relations have been featured in presidential
debates and campaign ads, with universal negativity toward Iran. This year
is no exception with Barack Obama,
Hillary Clinton, and John McCain all expressing hostile attitudes toward Iran. And this year's October Surprise is the rumor that the
Bush administration will bomb Iran
just before the election to give a boost to John McCain. Unless the Israeli
hawks get there first.
Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org)
contributor William O. Beeman is professor and chair
of the department of anthropology at the University
of Minnesota, Minneapolis. He is president of the Middle
East Section of the American Anthropological Association and the author, most
recently, of The "Great Satan" vs. the "Mad Mullahs": How the United States and Iran Demonize