The Bush administration’s recent diplomatic overtures toward Iran have unleashed a torrent of criticism from neoconservatives and have fueled concerns in Israel that Washington is shelving the option of using military force against Tehran’s nuclear facilities.
After months of rejecting the possibility of negotiating with Iran until it suspends nuclear enrichment, the administration sent a high-level envoy July 20 to European-led talks with Iranian diplomats on the nuclear issue. Washington also has suggested a willingness to open a low-level diplomatic mission in Tehran for the first time since 1979. And Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has signaled a preference for a diplomatic solution to the standoff.
Veteran Iran hands see the developments as evidence that President Bush has decided, at least for now, to give the State Department the lead on Iran policy. The White House’s shift has infuriated the advocates of regime change who held sway in Bush’s first term but have since been gradually sidelined.
“This is a major shift, but I see it in the context of any second term administration’s Hail Mary pass to secure a legacy,” said Michael Rubin, a former Iran analyst at the Pentagon who is now working at the American Enterprise Institute. “What we see now is the State Department running the show. [Secretary of State Condoleezza] Rice is a chameleon, and will always go with whatever side is up.”
While rumors of impending military operations by Israel or the United States against Iran continue to surface, the latest developments mark the second time in the past year that an official American decision has drawn the ire of both defense hawks in the United States and Israel’s political and military establishment. This past December a report representing the consensus view of America’s 16 intelligence agencies asserted that Iran had likely stopped its nuclear weapons program in 2003.
The intelligence estimate prompted furious reactions from Israeli officials. The most prominent critic of the assessment was Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who is scheduled to travel to Washington to try to prevent the Bush administration from shelving the military option.
The Israeli military’s chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, was also in Washington last week to discuss Iran’s nuclear program. Ashkenazi, as well as other Israeli officials, stressed that Jerusalem has not seen a change in America’s basic policy toward Iran.
Speaking to reporters after a July 23 reception at the Israeli embassy, Ashkenazi said that the United States and Israel are “united in their approach” that Iran should not have nuclear weapons. “There is no doubt that the priority is to do it in a way of diplomatic actions and sanctions,” he said. “I think this is the preferred way.” But, the lieutenant general added, both Washington and Jerusalem understand the need “to prepare all other options.”
On the diplomatic front, the Bush administration sent William Burns, the third-ranking official in the State Department, to a July 20 meeting in Geneva with European and Iranian diplomats. But Washington has since indicated that the diplomat’s involvement was a “one-off.” The administration has said that the discussions did not yield concrete results, and indicated that it would pursue further sanctions against Tehran if it refuses to suspend enrichment activities.
Such indications, however, have done little to placate those advocating a robust American policy on Iran.
“For a long time, the Bush administration maintained a studied ambiguity regarding Iran’s nuclear buildup,” said Laurent Murawiec, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan policy research organization Hudson Institute. “From the issuance of the NIE onward, it stopped doing so: In effect, it surrendered. Gone are considerations of the nature of the Iranian regime, its strategies, its intents. Everything is now vested in the ‘process,’ whereby diplomats exchange niceties, arrive nowhere and call it negotiations. Once dubbed part of the ‘Axis of Evil,’ Iran is now a legitimate partner, regardless of its hugely destabilizing action in Lebanon, Gaza, etc. The only birds left in the administration are poultry. Ms. Rice is the fowl in chief.”
Leading neoconservative John Bolton, who was undersecretary for arms control before he was appointed ambassador to the United Nations in 2005, has expressed a similar view. Recently, he has spoken out publicly against engagement with Iran several times, blasting the Bush administration for what he describes as a betrayal of its principles in order to save its legacy.
Gary Sick, who served as an Iran specialist at the National Security Council in the late 1970s, said that insofar as arguing that the Bush administration has fundamentally shifted away from its Iran policy earlier in the presidency, Bolton was “absolutely right.”
“While much of the world was hyperventilating over the possibility that the United States (and maybe Israel) were getting ready to launch a new war against Iran, Bolton was looking at the realities and concluding that far from bombing, the U.S. was preparing to do a deal with Iran,” Sick wrote in a recent posting. “He will have observed that the worst of the neocons (including himself) are now writing books and spending more time with families and friends, cheerleading for more war by writing Op-Eds from the outside rather than pursuing their strategies in policy meetings in the White House.”
Larry Wilkerson, who served as chief of staff to then-secretary of state Colin Powell during Bush’s first term and has since become one of the neoconservatives’ most prominent critics, cautioned that administration hawks might again return to favor in Washington.
The decision to send Burns to Geneva, Wilkerson said, was “a sign that the administration believes it has gained some strategic leverage vis-à-vis Iran and that it can now pursue what Bush has said he was pursuing all along — real diplomacy. This means that Rice is ascendant and [Deputy National Security Advisor] Elliott Abrams and Dick Cheney are in their boxes. How long this lasts, however, is a good question.”
With reporting by Nathan Guttman in Washington.