Diplomacy with Iran may be step too far for Bush


WORLDVIEW:  Knowledge deters. Iran's leaders are rational actors. Diplomacy works. These three propositions summarise the emerging realist paradigm which this week dramatically displaced the bellicose one at the heart of US policy towards Iran.

The National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) published on Monday concluded with high confidence that Iran ceased its nuclear weapons programme in 2003 under international pressure.

Its continuing uranium enrichment programme is for energy not weapons. But since the two are intimately related, Iran has the knowledge to make a nuclear weapon if it wants to. Since that fact cannot be reversed it should be given security and other incentives not to do so.

"In our judgment," say the authors of the NIE, "only an Iranian political decision to abandon a nuclear weapons objective would plausibly keep Iran from eventually producing nuclear weapons." Its assessment that Iran halted the programme in 2003 primarily in response to international pressure "indicates Tehran's decisions are judged by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic, and military costs". Hence the main message of the report is that diplomacy can work to convince them that such a political decision is rationally in their interests.

It has been a great week for those who follow the arguments in Washington between administration hardliners, their neoconservative allies and their realist and radical critics. The battle has been fought out in policy briefings, newspaper and online columns, blogs and television channels.

The word "startling" cropped up repeatedly to describe the report's impact. It completely reversed the previous intelligence assessment made in 2005 which concluded with high confidence that Iran has indeed an active nuclear weapons programme. That has been the linchpin of the Bush administration's policy of containment and pre-emptive action against Tehran, coupled lately with an active pursuit of tougher sanctions testing its willingness to comply. Conversations among these protagonists invariably hinged on whether and when US president George Bush would launch an air attack on Iranian nuclear targets - probably in April or May in the middle of the presidential campaign.

That prospect looked completely off the table by the end of the week, according to most commentators. Even if the administration does not change its policy it will be unable to draw Europeans along with it. Some of them pointed out that, in his warning about avoiding a third world war in October, Bush referred not to nuclear weapons but preventing Iran having the knowledge to make them. That implies an even more rigorously interventionist approach.

In his arguments with US policy, Mohamed ElBaradei of the International Atomic Energy Agency has consistently said it is impossible to reverse such an intellectual breakthrough once it is made because this would endow Iran with a "virtual" weapon which they would need to be rationally persuaded not to make real. His argument comes much more into the foreground this week.

Journalist Seymour Hersh told CNN the new information on which the NIE report is based has been available in whole or in part for up to a year but that publication, requested by Congress, has been sat on for months by US vice-president Dick Cheney's office. In the meantime the focus of their rhetoric shifted from weapons to Iranian subversion of US policy in Iraq, Lebanon and Gaza - providing another possible casus belli. He believes it will not be possible for the war party to retrieve its momentum.

Others suggested that if the report represents information from a specific Iranian source who defected earlier this year, then it could be capped by an equally dramatic intelligence coup later contradicting it - perhaps of Israeli origin - which would put the war scenario back on track.

There the estimate was greeted with dismay and disbelief - unsurprisingly given Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's belligerent anti-Zionism. This week he said the NIE report was a "declaration of victory" for Iran. But if it is to be believed, he is a marginal figure in Iran's power structure, strengthened only by the stimulus from US fundamentalism. Real decisions are taken by supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei and his circle, who are far from the mad Islamofascist mullahs of neoconservative imaginings.

Confronted with this evidence and in a compromise between administration pre-emptors and realists, the White House has in the past few months constructed a strategic plan to contain rather than engage Iran. It sought to recruit conservative Sunni Arab states like Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt against assumed Iranian Shia subversion in Iraq, Lebanon and Gaza. This was coupled with an effort to renew Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, culminating in the Annapolis summit last month.

The writer on Iran, Dilip Hiro, points out that Iran's behaviour does not fit this sectarian mould. Their support for the Sunni Hamas movement belies it, while they have already consolidated their regional interest in Iraq and have popular support throughout the Middle East because of their politics, notwithstanding their non-Arab, Shia identity.

Hence, he says, the NIE conclusion bears further exploration: "Some combination of threats of intensified international scrutiny and pressures, along with opportunities for Iran to achieve its security, prestige, and goals for regional influence in other ways, might - if perceived by Iran's leaders as credible - prompt Tehran to extend the current halt to its nuclear weapons programme."

No less a neocon luminary than Robert Kagan agrees. In his monthly Washington Post column this week, he calls for a comprehensive effort to engage Iran diplomatically. "With its policy tools broken, the Bush administration can sit around isolated for the next year. Or it can seize the initiative, and do the next administration a favour, by opening direct talks with Tehran."

That would reverse its existing policy, but give it a genuine advantage with regional and European allies. It would also feed constructively into the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, assuming Iran could be encouraged to engage in them.

It is probably a step too far for Bush. In that case it is difficult to disagree with Hiro's conclusion that "increasingly, Washington under Bush will be the loser, no matter who prevails in the region - an apt definition of a superpower in decline and of a genuine zero-sum fiasco" arising from its misconceived invasion of Iraq and confrontation with Iran.