How Bush Saved Iran's Neocons

Not long ago, Tehran’s hardliners were just one faction among many. But a series of diplomatic blunders by the Bush administration has put these guardians of Iran’s Islamic Revolution in the driver’s seat—and made war much more likely.

FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty ImagesShut out: Ousted nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani might have succeeded with stronger U.S. backing.

When it comes to foreign policy, the Bush administration has often made the perfect the enemy of the good. It wasted years seeking the removal of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat before it got serious about trying to broker an Arab-Israeli peace deal. Now, with barely a year left in office, it finds itself trying to reconcile a weakened Israel and a fractured Palestine. It ignored Iraqi history by dismantling powerful, centralized institutions and trying to re-create Iraq as a democratic, free-market state. More than four years later, U.S. officials are still struggling to salvage a stable nation from the wreckage.

The administration has followed a similar patternbut with potentially even more disastrous consequencesin its policy toward Iran. In applying new unilateral sanctions against the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, the Bush administration hopes to intensify divisions within the Iranian government so that more reasonable figures will benefit. So far, however, U.S. policy has had the opposite effect, boosting Iranian hardliners who argue that the Bush administration has no interest in reconciling with Iran and that Tehrans best course is to reach bomb capacity as soon as possible.

The recent resignation of Ali Larijani, Irans top nuclear negotiator, is a case in point. Caught between American neocons and Iranian hardliners, Larijani stepped down last month and was replaced by Saeed Jalili, an obscure foreign ministry official and crony of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Larijani could have achieved more with timely U.S. backing. In the winter of 2005-2006, he began making overtures to the Bush administration, going so far as to praise U.S. National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley as a logical thinker in an interview with me in Tehran. Larijani also authorized a deputy, Mohammad Javad Jaffari, to set up back-channel talks with Hadley or a designated emissary. The White House never replied.

In March 2006, Larijani went further and publicly accepted a prior U.S. offer for talks on Iraq. A week later, Irans supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, endorsed Larijanis acceptance, the first time Khamenei had publicly approved direct talks with the United States. Again, the Bush administration demurred, even though the idea was originally an American one. U.S. officials said that Iran would use the talks to distract from growing international pressure over its nuclear program. There was also concern in Washington that Iraqis, who were struggling to form a new government at the time, would think that the United States and Iran were deciding their political fate over the heads of the Iraqi people.

The U.S. failure to take yes for an answer further undermined Larijani and spurred Khamenei to tilt toward the conservative faction led by Ahmadinejad and his top clerical ally, Ayatollah Mohammad Mesbah Yazdi, who called for accelerating the nuclear program in defiance of U.S. and U.N. demands.

There are a few positive signs about the internal political battle, though still no indication that Iran will bow to external pressure over the nuclear issue. A new coalition of pragmatic conservatives and reformers did well in municipal elections in December, profiting from Ahmadinejads gross mismanagement of the economy. Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president often seen in the West as a man willing to cut a deal, recently won election as head of the Assembly of Experts, the body that will choose the next supreme leader. Parliamentary elections this March will test whether the pendulum is moving away from the hardliners. In the meantime, however, foreign policy remains in the hands of Ahmadinejads supporters. Even the foreign minister, Manucher Mottaki, is not hardline enough for the Iranian president. He is rumored to be on his way out, too.

Its no surprise, then, that U.S.-Iran talks about Iraq finally began in May this year in an atmosphere so fraught with hostility over sanctions and the nuclear issue that little has come of them. Iran, meanwhile, has refused to suspend its uranium enrichment program as demanded by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as a precondition for broad negotiations. A top aide to Ahmadinejad recently told me that the Iranians think Rice is lying when she says she will meet with Iran anywhere, anytime if Iran suspends enrichment. The Bush administration, this official said, has no interest in serious negotiations with Iran. You can hardly blame him or other Iranians for thinking this way.

It did not have to be like this. The September 11 attacks opened opportunities for lessening hostility between Iran and the United States. Iranians, virtually alone among the worlds Muslims, demonstrated spontaneously in support of the United States following 9/11. Irans government then cooperated with the United States in backing Afghanistans Northern Alliance, which captured Kabul from the Taliban in November 2001. Iran also helped put together a new government for Afghanistan in collaboration with U.S. diplomats.

When I visited Tehran in December 2001, politicians who previously had been wary of going on the record with a U.S. journalist said openly that the time was right to end nearly 30 years of U.S.-Iran estrangement. However, when I returned and discussed my impressions with a senior member of the White House National Security Council, he talked only of the fact that some al Qaeda members had managed to flee Afghanistan through Iran. Shortly thereafter, Israel captured a ship in the Red Sea carrying Iranian weapons said to be bound for Arafats Fatah faction. President Bush then decided to include Iran in his axis of evil, along with Iraq and North Korea. Iranians who had advocated better relations with the United States were astonished and humiliated.

The White House did permit secret, direct talks between U.S. and Iranian diplomats in Europe from the fall of 2001 through May 2003. The talks, however, were tactical, not strategic. They ended in May 2003, after they were disclosed on the front page of USA Today; the administration seemed embarrassed to be caught talking to evil. At the same time, Iran put forward an agenda for comprehensive talks on all the issues dividing the two countries, including the nuclear program and Irans support for anti-Israel groups. But the Bush administration did not reply. Baghdad had just fallen, and a triumphant Bush believed he did not need Irans help in Iraq. Instead, Bush and Rice argued that a democratic Iraq would hasten the fall of neighboring autocratic regimes. At that time, Iran had no centrifuges spinning at Natanz, Iraq was not yet a bloody morass, and Iranian religious conservatives had not yet begun a rise to power culminating in the election of Ahmadinejad in 2005.

Rice did offer in May 2006 to talk to Iran in company with European nations, if Iran would suspend uranium enrichment. But in announcing the offer, she discredited it in Iranian eyes when she insisted that such talks would not mean that the United States was recognizing the legitimacy of the Iranian government. Whats being provided legitimacy here is the negotiating process, not Iran, she said.

It is doubtful that Iran will now give up a nuclear program that it has withstood so much punishment to build. That increases the possibility of a U.S.-Iran military confrontation, which would be a disaster for Iran, the region, and much of the rest of the world. The price of oil would skyrocket, making $100 a barrel look cheap. Much of the planet would plunge into recession. The U.S. presence in Iraq at the behest of a Shiite government could become untenable. Anti-U.S. and anti-Israel terrorism would escalate to new heights.

The tragedy is that the dire choicebetween bombing Iran, and Iran with a bombcould have been avoided. Yet the pattern of offering too little, too late continues.

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