Talking with the Axis of Evil
In the past President George W. Bush accused Tehran of belonging to an “axis of evil”, compared negotiations with its president to appeasing Adolf Hitler, and warned that a nuclear-armed Iran would lead to World War Three.
His administration refused to join international talks on Iran’s nuclear programme, which it suspects could be used to produce a nuclear bomb, unless Tehran halted enriching uranium. It pointedly declined to rule out military action if a diplomatic solution was not found.
Now, the United States is sending one of its top diplomats — along with representatives from other major powers — to talks in Geneva on Saturday with Iran to hear its response to an offer of financial and diplomatic incentives if Iran gives up its sensitive nuclear work.
And Britain’s Guardian newspaper says Washington will announce in the next month that it plans to establish a diplomatic present in Tehran for the first time in 30 years — a move the newspaper describes as a “remarkable turnaround in policy by President George Bush”.
U.S. officials say the decision to send senior diplomat William Burns to the Geneva talks sends a strong signal that the United States is committed to diplomacy, adding that Washington will only join full-blown negotiations if uranium enrichment stops.
One hawkish former U.S. administration official sees it differently. “This is, and the evidence is plain for all to see, the total intellectual collapse of the Bush administration,” former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton told Reuters.
He wrote in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal: “There was a time when the Bush administration might itself have seriously considered using force, but all public signs are that such a moment has passed.”
He urges Washington to consider what cooperation it “will extend to Israel before, during and after a strike on Iran” but he doesn’t seem to think the U.S. administration is listening.
So is Washington preparing for a deal instead of war?
This might explain a flurry of regional diplomacy.
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki heads for Turkey, shortly after meetings in Ankara by President George W. Bush’s National Security Adviser, Stephen Hadley.
Burns will attend the Geneva meeting and then there’s the Guardian report.
Any deal has a logic that could benefit both sides. Analysts often point out overlapping regional interests. The two countries, say analysts, ultimately want a stable Iraq, share a loathing for the radical Sunni Taliban in Afghanistan and (despite Iran’s recent buddying up) are equally distrustful of Russia. (It’s no accident that Iran under the shah was Washington’s closest Middle East ally — bar Israel.)
And yet — there always seems to one of those — the wheels of this happy bandwagon could come off, and quickly.
Much hinges on what happens in Geneva when Iranian chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili sits down for talks with the European Union’s Javier Solana, the representative of world powers in Saturday’s Geneva talks. Solana will want to see signs that Iran is ready to consider suspending uranium enrichment, a process Tehran has so far refused to halt.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose opinion ultimately holds sway in Iran, spoke on Wednesday of Iran’s “red lines” — not a very promising statement on the face of it.
Overlapping interests, say analysts, may not be enough for Iran to rehabilitate ties with the “Great Satan”. Interests have overlapped for the past 30 years or so but the hostility has continued. (President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has, however, said Iran would consider any overture to open an interests section).
And then, say some Western diplomats, there’s Israel. Will it take matters into its own hands after vowing not to let Iran get The Bomb? Diplomats say it might.
So there may be a shift in Washington. Some at least have detected it. Inside Iran, there has been an unusually public debate on how to handle the nuclear file even if there have also been some fairly uncompromising comments.
But are we really close to a breakthrough? And how long is Israel ready to wait? There’s still plenty to debate.