I start from the assumption that Rice's statement was a compromise document that was fought out over a period of weeks, perhaps months, in Washington between the warring tribes (the Washington Post in particular documents this in some detail in their front-page story today). One tribe seems to be centered in the State Department in the persons of Condoleeza Rice and Nick Burns; the other tribe is headed by VP Cheney and operates out of his black-box counter-policy staff in the White House -- a new phenomenon in the history of US foreign policy.
Neither side appears to have won an outright victory, though Rice & Co. were able to win the tactical victory of an offer to Iran of possible diplomatic contact. It is important to remember that every word of this statement was weighed and was subject to arguments and objections. So it is possible to learn a lot just by a careful reading.
The entire first half of the document is devoted to a restatement of the US objections to Iran and its nuclear program. This is to appease the Cheneyites that Bush and Condi have not gone wobbly on Iran. At the same time, the word "diplomacy" shows up over and over, which I take as a signal that Bush and Condi have looked at the likely outcome of a military strike and have decided that it is a losing proposition. But they dare not "take it off the table," both as a negotiating tactic and as a necessary sop to those lusting for more blood sport after Iraq.
The preamble also stresses multilateral approaches, identifying the US with its European allies and "the international community." This is, if nothing else, a measurement of how the Cheney forces have been weakened by the unilateralism of Iraq and its aftermath. They must at least pretend to build international support, even if at heart they don't believe in it.
For those of us who have followed the various proposals in op-eds, study groups, and Track II meetings concerning possible contact between Iran and the US, we will appreciate that the language of this statement, though tough, does not resort to the more extravagant rhetoric of the past. There is no talk here of an Axis of Evil, or rogue state, or outlaw regime, or central banker of terror, that have characterized so many American statements about Iran. Remember, in the negotiations of this text, those words were not just casually omitted; they had to be resisted or excised.
Outsiders may find it hard to understand what an accomplishment that may have been.
About half way down, Rice states, "The Iranian people believe they have the right to civil nuclear energy. We acknowledge that right." Although technically that is not new, it effectively defines the boundaries of the discussion. This is not about depriving Iran of nuclear technology (as we tried to do not so very long ago) or even about nuclear power stations or even, in the final analysis, about enrichment -- all of the "red lines" that the US has adopted at various times.
Instead, the US position is now defined very clearly (in the press conference that followed the announcement): "There is a strong international consensus that Iran must not have a nuclear weapon, . . .and that if Iran is to have a civil nuclear program it needs to be one in which the international community can have confidence that they're not trying to build a nuclear weapon under cover of civil nuclear power. We have complete and total agreement on that."
That is altogether sensible, but it is also a position that the US has come to adopt only slowly and, in my view, belatedly. It even leaves room -- perhaps inadvertently -- for an outcome in which Iran would preserve some degree of enrichment (laboratory level centrifuge operation under close IAEA supervision?) as a face-saving measure. But that would have to come later in the negotiating process.
Then it gets to the central point: ". . .to underscore our commitment to a diplomatic solution and to enhance the prospects for success, as soon as Iran fully and verifiably suspends its enrichment and reprocessing activities, the United States will come to the table with our EU-3 colleagues and meet with Iran's representatives."
It is an amusing little irony that the US Ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, who is one of the hardest of all hardliners on this subject, and who presumably resisted it in the internal debate, was appointed to be the messenger to deliver advance notice of the decision to the Iranian UN ambassador, Javad Zarif, who is widely regarded as a proponent of better US-Iran relations. It would have been interesting to listen to that conversation.
Immediately thereafter, the text slips back to more hardline dogma. President Bush, it notes, "wants a new and positive relationship between the American people and the people of Iran." This relationship is to be between the peoples of the two countries, not their governments; and all talk of more formal relations is dismissed. There is not even a substantive hint about the possible agenda for US-Iran interaction in the nuclear talks. Instead, "We believe the Iranian people want a future of freedom and human rights-. the right to vote, to run for office, to express their views without fear, and to pursue political causes. We would welcome the progress, prosperity, and freedom of the Iranian people."
That is merely a polite way of saying that we want the present Iranian government to go away and be replaced by something else, i.e. regime change. So the US hardliners get the last word, albeit in softer language than they might otherwise prefer. That is why Condi Rice must react in horror to the idea that this might be the beginning of a "grand bargain" with the Iranian regime. That is anathema to neo-Cheney dogma.
However, if you think that this is simply a neo-con package with a bit of new ribbon, just consult the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal today, or the article by Michael Rubin in the National Review Online entitled "Damage Is Done: The Bush administration's bad Iran move"
So what should we make of all this?
First of all, it really is a major shift in US policy. Regardless of spin, the offer to join the talks is a reversal of previous US positions and was achieved only after a good bit of bureaucratic blood was spilled.
Second, it is also a compromise, consequently unsatisfactory to purists of all stripes. However, in comparing this US initiative to Ahmadinejad's crude letter, this comes out looking pretty good.
Third, its outcome is quite uncertain. If Iran's leaders see it as a potential opening to satisfy Iran's national pride and also to pursue its larger goals of integration and respect in the international community, they could construct a tentative but positive response that would challenge the US side to go beyond the bare bones of this statement.
That could be the beginning of a useful process that could address a larger range of issues that divide the two countries. Secretary Rice protests that no such outcome is envisaged, and the neo-con publicists tremble at the thought that Iran just possibly might not reject the offer out of hand, thereby starting an actual negotiating process that would address more than the nuclear issue and might even lead to evolution rather than revolution in Iran.
If, however, Iran follows the dictates of its own neo-conservatives who believe that the US is presently a toothless tiger that can be dismissed with impunity, then the hardliners in Washington will also win and we will have missed still another opportunity to resolve some of the issues between the two countries, which have festered unattended for more than a quarter of a century.
We will also edge closer to the time when Iran gets into the nuclear weapons business. If we had decided ten years ago that our objective was to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and if we had been willing to engage with them then and put a reasonable offer on the table, it is very likely that Iran would not have even a nascent enrichment capability today. But several US administrations deluded themselves into thinking that we could keep the Iranians technologically dumb and deprived, by pure coercion and pressure. Now they have at least a rudimentary enrichment capability, and it is delusional to think that they will give it up entirely.
Both sides have walked away from potentially beneficial arrangements over the years. Later we both look back and realize that the price of a new bargain will be far higher than the one we earlier rejected. This is merely the latest in this sad procession, and it is too early to say which of the warring tribes -- whether in Washington or Tehran -- will ultimately prevail.
Response from William Beeman
I thank Gary Sick for his wise and insightful analysis of the current turning point in U.S.-Iranian affairs. I recognize from Gary's careful reading of the Rice document that genuine change is in the offing, and am persuaded that the situation is indeed conducive to easing tensions, and even to creating eventual rapprochement between the United States and Iran. The question will be whether people of good will in both Iran and the United States will have the courage and the resources to stay the course despite the considerable forces that will be working hard to sabotage the process.
Massive political and economic forces in the United States are deeply invested in preserving enmity between the two countries. Both Democrats and Republicans have shamelessly used attacks on Iran as an all-purpose posture whenever they were empty of any thoughtful opinion on foreign policy. Getting these politicians to recant those positions is going to be hard--since changing a strongly expressed public opinion gives one's political enemies an easy route of political attack. Political advocacy groups such as AIPAC, AEI and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy have built permanent attacks on Iran into their fundamental operating and funding procedures. The editorial pages of major newspapers such as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times know they have a boost in reader approval every time they deliver a body blow to Iran. Iran and 9/11 are the all-purpose excuses for everything that goes wrong in the world for the Bush administration. Attacking Iran is an industry, in fact, and getting all those people to give it up will be very hard, as Madeline Albright found out in her first brave effort during the Clinton administration.
Iranian officials are no less shameful in using "The Great Satan did it" as the excuse for their failures, or justifying their more questionable actions as defense against American attacks. Remove the putative American threat and all those flaws and failures will have to be addressed.
As fervently as forces in the U.S. political establishment would like to see the Iranian government dry up and blow away, it just will not happen--not with bombing, not with subversion, and not by trying to create dissention among Iran's ethnic and religious groups. Nor will Iran relinquish rights that it shares with other nations just because the United States wants it to happen. From the Iranian side, the United States is not going to remove itself from the Gulf region very soon, nor will it give up supporting Israel; and this will not change whether Democrats or Republicans are in power. These are hard facts that both sides will have to learn to live with.
The simple truth is that these hard facts are not so hard to live with after all when the opportunity to talk them over exists on a regular basis in the context of a community of nations who share a common view of the need to promote the welfare of the world, not just the interests of a narrow spectrum of nations. The present situation is indeed a watershed. Even if the entire effort falls apart, it will be easier to return to this same point now that it has been attained.