How relations with Iran were sabotaged

The surprising statement by Condoleeza Rice yesterday that the US was reversing course on its previously adamant insistence against having talks with Iran and Syria, and was willing to attend six-party talks next month hosted by Iraq that will include both countries, is being hailed as a welcome sign of change by the Bush administration to try diplomacy instead of war. I wish I could feel as hopeful but I have become deeply cynical of the motives of this administration.

My skepticism is because there are reasons why this could be just a feint. Some members of Congress, alarmed by the war-like rhetoric coming out of the White House, have introduced a resolution expressly prohibiting an attack on Iran without their explicit approval. The suggestion of talks with Iran may be aimed at defusing those moves. Or it may be that the Bush administration thinks that before it initiates an air assault on Iran, it needs to show that it tried diplomacy and failed, and these talks are meant to suggest that they tried everything.

Whatever the reason behind this abrupt switch, this marks the latest shift of a turbulent relationship between the US and Iran. The February 19, 2007 issue of Newsweek has an informative article by Michael Hirsch and Maziar Bahari on how the US relationship with Iran has see-sawed. It had been clear for some time that Iran had sought closer ties with the US, after the low-point caused by the student takeover of the US embassy in 1979. Perhaps the best chance came at improving relations after the events of 9/11. Iran had arrested members of al Qaeda in that country and an Iranian official said:

“We wanted to truly condemn the attacks but we also wished to offer an olive branch to the United States, showing we were interested in peace,” says Adeli. To his relief, Iran’s top official, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, quickly agreed. “The Supreme Leader was deeply suspicious of the American government,” says a Khameini aide whose position does not allow him to be named. “But [he] was repulsed by these terrorist acts and was truly sad about the loss of the civilian lives in America.”

Iran was opposed to the Taliban and thus did not oppose the American invasion of Afghanistan and even offered $500 million dollars (twice what the US was offering) in reconstruction aid for the country. They also worked with the US in November and December of 2001 in setting up the post-Taliban Afghan government structure.

But that was the high point of the collaboration and things fell apart soon after that. The trigger for the decline was Bush’s State of the Union speech in January 2002 that included the infamous ‘axis of evil’ phrase. Michael Gerson, Bush’s speechwriter at the time, said that the Bush administration had already decided to invade Iraq but did not want to single out Iraq alone in his 2002 speech as that would make things too obvious. So they looked for other countries to include in the speech to camouflage their true intent and Condoleeza Rice suggested that North Korea and Iran be added. This labeling stunned the Iranians, completely discrediting those in the Iranian government who were pushing for closer ties with the US, and confirming the view of the chief Iranian cleric Ali Khamenei that the US simply could not be trusted. Relations never recovered after that.

The Newsweek article implies that this feint strategy to include Iran in the axis of evil was purely for domestic public relations purposes that had unintended and disastrous foreign policy consequences but I find that hard to believe. The neoconservative clique that has such a stranglehold on the Bush administration has always wanted to attack Iran and they must have been concerned at the rapprochement between the two countries. I suspect they were instrumental, through Rice, in including Iran, knowing that it would completely sour relations and increase the chances of hostilities.

But even after this there was a glimmer of hope when, after the 2003 attack on Iraq, Iran sent a fax to the US State Department offering talks on a wide range of issues. I wrote about this sometime ago but the actual fax is now available. Iran probably felt vulnerable because of the swift sweep of US forces into Iraq and thus offered to make concessions on almost everything, including its nuclear program. Condoleeza Rice now says that she cannot remember seeing the fax, an extraordinary admission about such an important development. It frankly seems far-fetched that Rice would not be aware of such a thing. One can only conclude that this administration, or at least key people in it, had decided that they were going to war with Iran and wanted to have nothing to do with anything that might deflect them from that course.

But this was another squandered opportunity, confirming to the Iranians that the US was not interested in improving relations.

I hope I am wrong in my cynicism about the latest warming trend, and that there will genuinely be a move back from the brink of another war and towards a better relationship between the US and Iran.

POST SCRIPT: The dark world of Dick Cheney

It used to be thought that Dick Cheney was the “grown-up” in this administration, there to provide gravitas and advise the inexperienced Bush. What has actually emerged is that Cheney is a man of appallingly bad judgment, almost paranoid in his fears about the threats to the US, and the most belligerent advocate for the neoconservative agenda of more and wider wars. It is suggested that it is no accident that the latest diplomatic overture by the US towards Iran occurred when he was out of the country and that on his return he might try and scuttle it.

There is now a growing awareness that Cheney is a dangerous and reckless man, who is willing to disregard evidence and say anything to further his agenda. Matthew Yglesias argues that Cheney has become both a national joke and a national nightmare, “a man whose track record of dishonesty, catastrophically poor judgments, and world-historical stubbornness makes the rest of the Bush administration look reasonable.” And Josh Marshall adds that “outside of the hardcore of Bush dead-enders, people know he’s at best an incompetent fool.”

This telling cartoon suggests that more and more people are coming round to the kind of view.

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