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Damage Is Done
The Bush administration's bad Iran move.


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Michael Rubin

It did not take long for Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad to slap down Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s offer of direct talks. “Rice’s comments can be considered a propaganda move,” Ahmadinejad told the Islamic Republic News Agency.

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Rice’s announcement that U.S. officials were prepared to both offer the Iranian regime new incentives and sit down with it was a strategic fumble. Not only did Rice provide Ahmadinejad with an opportunity to humiliate the “arrogant power” to his domestic audience, but she also undercut what little international credibility the U.S. retains.

On its surface, the U.S. initiative was traditional diplomacy. Rice offered both carrots and sticks: “We are agreed with our European partners on the essential elements of a package containing both the benefits if Iran makes the right choice, and the costs if it does not.” But the devil is in the details. The stick–if Iran remains noncompliant–is a vague European and Russian commitment to consider sanctions at the United Nations. What specific sanctions? Not decided. What time frame? Undetermined.

Should Washington trust European and Russian sincerity when it comes to a fundamental threat to U.S. national security? In Bush’s calculation, the worst outcome would be for the Islamic Republic of Iran to possess nuclear bombs. For many Europeans, though, the idea that the U.S. might act forcefully to deny Iran nuclear weapons is a greater threat. And so they encourage an administration more eager to please the international audience than lead it to once again entangle itself in multilateral obfuscation.

It is tempting to believe engagement can succeed, but precedent suggests otherwise. In early 1992, Berlin inaugurated a policy of critical engagement with Iran, believing that dialogue and concession could draw the Islamic Republic into the norms of international behavior. Soon after, on September 17, 1992, Iranian government assassins murdered four Iranian dissidents. On April 10, 1997, a German court found that a committee composed of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and intelligence minister Ali Fallahian had ordered the hit. Rather than moderate, European concessions convinced Iranian leaders that they could get away with murder. They did.


After delivering to their Iranian counterparts a strongly worded tongue-lashing, European officials tried again. Between 2000 and 2005, European Union trade with Iran almost tripled. Oil prices surged. But rather than invest its windfall in civil society and basic infrastructure, the Iranian government–at the time in the hands of so-called reformists–poured its hard currency into a clandestine nuclear program. On September 24, 2005, the International Atomic Energy Agency found Iran in non-compliance with the nuclear non-proliferation treaty’s safeguards agreement.

European negotiators tried once more. On November 15, 2004, the Iranian government agreed to suspend uranium enrichment–the same demand Rice made yesterday. Iran got what it wanted: A decision not to refer the matter to the United Nations. The next day, the Daily Telegraph reported, that Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said “he was confident that Tehran was taking its commitment seriously.” European backslapping was short-lived. Iran decided to backslide on its commitment and again began to enrich uranium. It was typical Tehran behavior. Iranian diplomacy consists of one step forward, two steps back. Western officials meet backsliding–however large–with a click of the tongue; they mark forward progress, however slight, with concessions. That the net vector is backwards matters not when diplomats just seek to win the next promise or transitory deal.

European governments are not the only ones who have experienced Iranian insincerity. Washington has too. Prior to the Iraq campaign, the Iranian government pledged to not interfere. They broke their promise within days of the fall of Saddam Hussein. Today, Iranian intelligence have free reign over southern Iraq and, increasingly, Iraqi Kurdistan. None of this should come as a surprise to Washington. Iranian government officials consider U.S. red lines to be drawn with pencil on sand.

Foggy Bottom’s fundamental misunderstanding of Iran is dangerous. There was little surprise to Rice’s about-face. Undersecretary of State for Policy Nicholas Burns has long urged direct negotiation; he can be persuasive. There is a mantra in Foggy Bottom–inculcated in diplomats from their very first day in the A-100 class–that any problem can be solved with discussion and negotiation. In some cases this is true. But it also reflects a projection on the part of U.S. diplomats who feel that all problems are political and solutions lie only in discovery of some magic formula of incentives and compromises. But multiculturalism is not just about celebrating diversity. It is also about recognizing that those from other nations and cultures can have different ideologies, values, and thought processes. “Diplomacy is much more than just talking to your friends. You’ve got to talk to people who aren’t our friends, and even people you dislike,” former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told the New York Times. Perhaps. But does Khamenei view diplomacy the same way? Where did Iranians learn the art of negotiation? In some swank Virginia institute or in the bazaar? How did a lifelong seminary education shape Khamenei’s perception of the West?

If Rice’s offer was just a misstep–to be forgotten like Madeleine Albright’s–then no harm done. But Rice set a precedent. Her offer may have sought to solve one problem, but it signaled other nations that the path to concession and recognition lies through proliferation, not compliance. Washington’s handicap has always been the triumph of short-term fixes over long-term strategy. Why should any country voluntarily forfeit a nuclear program as South Africa and Brazil once did, or nuclear weapons as did the Ukraine and Kazakhstan?

The damage caused by Rice’s offer to the people of Iran may be irreversible. She can speak of how “President Bush wants a new and positive relationship between the American people and the people of Iran.” But if so, why recognize and legitimize the unelected regime which is oppressing them? In 1953 and 1979, the U.S. government supported an unpopular leader against the will of the Iranian public. Why, in 2006, should we make the same mistake a third time?

During his second inauguration, Bush declared, “All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: The United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you.” Nothing could be further from the truth. The wholesale abandonment of those seeking liberty goes beyond Iran. When Rice announced the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with Libya, she did not mention democracy. Likewise, Rice has broken her promises to the Egyptian people. On May 25, Egyptian police beat and sodomized a 24-year-old protester Muhammad Sharkawi. His crime? Holding a sign reading, “I want my rights back.” The Egyptian government has denied him medical attention, and those monitoring his case in Cairo say his breathing is labored due to cracked ribs, and he is urinating blood due to other internal injuries. Both the State Department and the U.S. embassy in Cairo remain silent.

On September 20, 2001, President Bush declared, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” With Bush’s decision to abandon freedom-seekers across the region, and reward a terror-sponsoring Iranian regime in noncompliance with its international commitments, the White House has signaled to the world, stand with us if you want, but we only respond when you’re against us.

Michael Rubin, editor of the Middle East Quarterly, is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He is co-author, with Patrick Clawson, of Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos.



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