Why Bush folded on Iran
of the military and petroleum-based variety, forced the administration to
change course. Now Bush sounds like Obama.
By Juan Cole
Jul. 31, 2008 | Pundits and diplomats nearly got whiplash from the double
take they did when George W. Bush sent the No. 3 man in the State Department to
sit at a table on July 19 across from an Iranian negotiator, without any
preconditions. When Bush had addressed the Israeli Knesset in May, he made
headlines by denouncing any negotiation with "terrorists and
radicals" as "the false comfort of appeasement." What drove W.
to undermine John McCain by suddenly adopting Barack Obama's foreign policy prescription on Iran?
Back in mid-July, the Geneva talks were
attended by representatives of the five veto-wielding nations on the United
Nations Security Council, including the U.S.,
along with a delegate from Germany
and chief European Union negotiator Javier Solana. E.U. parleys with Tehran have been going on for years, but the presence of
undersecretary of state for political affairs William Burns signaled a new
seriousness to Washington's
commitment to the diplomatic track. What the U.S.
and its European allies were offering Iran
at the Geneva
meeting was termed a "freeze for freeze" deal. Iran would not attempt to improve on its
rudimentary ability to enrich uranium to low levels, or go beyond running 3,000
centrifuges, in return for a pause in the spiral of economic sanctions imposed
by the U.N. Security Council.
The blogosphere and Op-Ed pages were rife with
speculation about the reason for Bush's startling reversal. Former National
Security Council staffer and Columbia
University Iran expert Gary Sick implied that Vice President Dick Cheney
and the hawks had
lost control of Iran policy to foreign policy realists such as Secretary of
Defense Robert Gates in a behind-the-scenes Oval Office rumble. His thesis was
supported by the howls of outrage against Bush's "appeasement" of Iran published in the Wall Street Journal
opinion pages by former U.S.
ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton and by the American Enterprise
Institute's Michael Rubin, both prominently associated with the neoconservative
movement and with propagandizing for the Iraq war.
As usual, the neocon doth protest too much. Burns
conducted no real negotiations with the Iranian delegation, simply restating Washington's insistence that Iran cease its enrichment
activities. His presence at the negotiations was mainly symbolic. Still, on the
symbolic level of politics, Washington's
change of direction was momentous. Bush had clearly executed a "Rockford" or reverse
180 of the sort you see stunt drivers pull off in spy movies. And the reason
for that reversal of course was, indeed, reality -- not just a
recognition of the limits of the U.S. military, but a taste of
$5-per-gallon gas. Bush and Cheney, both oilmen, invaded one oil-rich country
and said its reconstruction would be paid for by a flood of cheap oil. Now,
ironically, one of the main reasons they have had to scale back their ambitions
for a second oil-rich country, Iran,
is the crushing effect of expensive oil on the U.S. and world
It was just a year ago that war with Iran seemed imminent. Last August
David Wurmser, a major neoconservative figure who had
just left Cheney's staff revealed that the vice president was
talking about having Israel hit Iran's nuclear
research facilities. At the same time, Afghanistan
Rubin went public with what he was told by a Bush administration insider --
that Cheney would make a big push for a strike on Iran in the fall of 2007.
Journalist Seymour Hersh reported that Cheney was
attempting to reconfigure
the Iraq war as a struggle with Iran. And, indeed, Cheney did make
threats against Iran at
institutions of the Israel
lobby such as the Washington
Institute for Near East Policy.
In December 2007, however, the intelligence community pushed back. Key
findings from the National Intelligence Estimate, released that month,
showed that Iran
had mothballed any weapons-related research since early 2003. The Cheney push
for one more war was effectively blocked.
In recent months, several major
developments have strengthened the case for dealing with Iran
diplomatically rather than militarily. The U.S.
military is more overstretched in Iraq
than ever. The resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan
and the tribal areas of northwest Pakistan
has required a significant increase in the number of U.S. and NATO
troops during the past year. Iranian proxies in Iraq
and Afghanistan could easily
target U.S. bases with Katyusha rockets in retaliation for any U.S. strike on the nuclear research facilities
at Natanz near Isfahan.
These concerns have been openly admitted by Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of
the Joint Chiefs of Staff. On May 26, Mullen was asked on CBS's "Early
Show" about possible U.S.
military means of curbing Iran's
regional ambitions. He replied, "Well, I think, actually, it's more than
just the military. It's got to be the full spectrum of national elements of
power -- economics, finances, diplomacy, politics, as well as military."
In a briefing in early June after his return from Israel, Mullen
complained that "we haven't had much of a dialogue with the Iranians
for a long time," and when pressed if he was calling for talks, he
affirmed the need for a "broad dialogue."
Mullen seemed to warn hawks in the U.S. and Israel against a strike on Iran
of the sort Cheney had earlier envisaged, saying that in light of the Iraq and
Afghanistan wars, "opening up a third front right now would be extremely
stressful on us." Mullen admitted when pressed that the Iranians
"have capabilities which could certainly hazard the Strait of Hormuz," though he was confident that the U.S. could
reopen it. Despite that confidence, Mullen said that he was worried about
instability in the Middle East, and about
anything that might contribute to it.
Neither Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice nor Defense Secretary Gates,
sometimes seen as foreign policy realists in the mold of George H.W. Bush, were
pushing as hard in public for a dialogue with Iran as Mullen was last May,
had begun actively warning against a frontal military conflict with Iran
beginning last March.
The run-up in petroleum prices has also had major implications for Iran strategy.
Oil companies and European governments are not happy with U.S. policy toward Iran. American and European energy
corporations are losing billions in potential profits because of
congressionally mandated third-party sanctions on companies that attempt to
oil and gas. The sanctions do not produce regime change, but they do reduce the
world supply of oil and gas, and they irritate U.S. allies. In the past few months Royal
Dutch Shell and Total S.A. have both pulled out of plans to develop
lucrative and vast Iranian gas fields, under strong U.S. pressure and threats of
economic sanctions. Sanctions are pushing up the cost of oil -- but a war with Iran would push
up the price still more. Meanwhile, the sanctions have enough of an economic
impact on Iran
to make it more amenable to negotiations. Well aware that internationally
supported economic sanctions had helped turn Iraq
into a fourth-world country prior to the U.S.
invasion, the Iranians were eager to seem accommodating during the July 19
meeting in Geneva.
The initiative for the July 19 negotiations with Iran
in Geneva came from the meeting of the Group of
Eight on July 7-9 in Tokyo, which determined to
dispatch the European Union's Javier Solana for talks with Tehran. Secretary of State Rice strongly
supported the joint approach to Tehran,
telling the Voice of America: "So there is a diplomatic way to do this.
And that's why the United States
is a part of the group -- that is, Germany,
France, Great Britain, Russia and China -- [that] has made a proposal
to the Iranian government that we hope they will accept."
Given the sequence of events that led to Burns' presence in Geneva, it
appears that this initiative was probably developed in Europe, by countries
stung that their oil majors would be excluded from Iran for the foreseeable
future because of U.S. third-party sanctions. Ironically, the administration
figure closest to the position of the Europeans was precisely Adm. Mullen, who
may thereby have earned a hearing from Gates on the issue of talking to Iran.
The U.S. has therefore
simultaneously been interfering with the availability of cheap petroleum
products globally and making the case for military action against Iran less
compelling. Both the U.S.
and its European allies know that the negative fallout from a war could be
immense. Its effect on the world oil supply would be catastrophic. Iran's perennial threats to close the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian
Gulf in the event that it is attacked have to be taken especially seriously when oil supplies are as
tight as they are now. Some 40 percent of the world's petroleum flows through
that choke point, and any significant interruption of supply under today's
conditions could send prices skyrocketing so far as to threaten the world with
another Great Depression. In short, Iran is far more powerful when
petroleum is $127 a barrel than when it is $25 a barrel, and that power makes
it more prudent to negotiate with it than to rattle sabers. The opening to Iran was not a
victory of the realists, but of realism. That in the aftermath, Bush's Iran
policy looks more like that of Barack Obama than that of John McCain, is just an indication that Obama is more realistic about the increasing constraints on
U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle Eastern oil states than is McCain.
-- By Juan Cole