Monday :: Dec 10, 2007

Bush and Iran: Don't talk, don't listen, don't learn


by Turkana

In the Los Angeles Times, Tufts law profeessor Vali Nasr explains one of the most misunderstood basic facts about Iran:

When most Americans think of Iran, they probably think of its incendiary president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Since his election in 2005, Ahmadinejad has gleefully shocked the world with his defiance over Iran's nuclear programs, his ravings about a Shiite messiah, his jeremiads against Israel and his denial that the Holocaust occurred. But while Ahmadinejad is surely the regime's face, he's not its boss. Since Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's death in 1989, the real power in Tehran has belonged to Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Ahmadinejad makes the noise, but Khamenei pulls the strings.

It's not just ordinary citizens who assume that Ahmadinejad calls the shots in Tehran. Last Tuesday, as President Bush tried to explain away a new National Intelligence Estimate reporting that Iran had shuttered its nuclear-weapons program in 2003, he argued at an awkward news conference that his administration's "carrot-and-stick approach" toward Iran had been working -- "until Ahmadinejad came in." But under the Iranian system, a president matters far less than the supreme leader. For all Ahmadinejad's bluster, he is not "the decider." It's the unelected and unaccountable Khamenei who sits atop Iran's labyrinthine political structure. He gets the last word on whether Iran should try to get the bomb or try to talk to the United States. So to deal with Iran, the West must get to know Khamenei.

Bush's comment, as usual, is so wrong on so many levels, particularly because it was President Clinton's less aggressive attitude towards Iran that was helping encourage moderation in both countries, while Bush's "axis of evil" bombast helped bring Ahmadinejad to power. But Bush doesn't even seem to understand the basic power structure, in Iran.

The supreme leader is an enigma even to most of Iran's 70 million people. In fact, he's far more cautious, conservative and pragmatic than the bellowing Ahmadinejad. Khamenei wants a "Goldilocks" kind of Islamic Republic -- not too hot, not too cold. He's reluctant to tilt too far in any one direction and keen to keep squabbling factions on board. He says that nuclear weapons are un-Islamic but heartily approves of the knowledge and fuel required to build them. And he is even willing to work with the United States to bring stability to Afghanistan and Iraq -- as long as Iran gets to expand its regional influence by keeping its feeble neighbors under its thumb.

And that gets to the real point.

In a terrific analysis in Salon, a few days ago, Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett wrote:

The latest National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's nuclear program raises questions once again about the Bush administration's veracity in describing a nuclear threat. But President Bush's worst misrepresentations about the Iranian nuclear issue do not focus on whether Tehran is currently pursuing a nuclear weapons program or when Bush knew the U.S. intelligence community was revising its previous assessments. Rather, the real lie is the president's claim that his administration has made a serious offer to negotiate with the Islamic Republic, and that Iranian intransigence is the only thing preventing a diplomatic resolution.

Because we all know that Bush doesn't believe in the basic concept of negotiation. Like a drunken adolescent, he's more interested in strutting around in a codpiece and declaring himself The Commander Guy, The Decider, and A War President than actually making realistic efforts to resolve anything.

Negotiations over Iran's nuclear activities started in the fall of 2003, initiated not by the United States, but by the "EU-3" -- Britain, France and Germany. Iran, for its part, agreed to suspend its nuclear activities as talks proceeded. But, contrary to Bush's statement at his press conference this week, the United States did not "facilitate" these negotiations. Indeed, the Europeans had launched the talks to fill a diplomatic vacuum, after the Bush administration cut off its post-9/11 dialogue with Iran over Afghanistan and rebuffed an Iranian offer to negotiate a comprehensive resolution of U.S.-Iranian differences earlier that year.

Europe tried, for several years on its own, to negotiate with Iran, formulating a framework of incentives to get Iran to back down.

Unfortunately, when the Bush administration finally decided to back a multilateral offer for nuclear negotiations with Iran in 2006, it refused to endorse the incentives package unless the language dealing with regional security issues was removed. Senior British, French, German and EU officials have told us they recognized that removing these provisions would render the package meaningless from an Iranian perspective. Nevertheless, the Europeans went along -- judging that having Washington join an offer of talks with Tehran was critical to preventing a complete diplomatic breakdown, and calculating they could eventually persuade the Bush administration to support the provision of strategic incentives.

But this was soon seen as a mistake, because it became clear that Bush has no interest in strategic incentives.

The diplomatic efforts of our European allies and other international partners to broker serious negotiations with Iran are doomed to fail until this deficit in U.S. policy is corrected. The Iranian leadership -- a collective in which Ahmadinejad is not the most powerful player -- wants a strategic "deal" addressing Iran's core interests: security, the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic, and Iran's regional role. Even with Ahmadinejad in office, Tehran has tried repeatedly -- through discussions with EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and other channels -- to elicit some indication that Washington would be willing to consider Iran's security interests and regional role as part of a negotiating agenda, but President Bush has consistently refused to allow this. It is in this context that the significance of Bush's real lie about Iran is exposed: The Bush administration has never offered to negotiate with Tehran on any basis that might actually be attractive to the Islamic Republic's leadership.

And they never will. Like everything that needs to be done, that will be left to the next Administration. As he has his entire life, Bush makes messes and let's others clean them up.

Meanwhile, Bush's Defense Secretary was catapulting the propaganda, on Sunday. As reported by the Washington Post:

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates argued forcefully at a Persian Gulf security conference Saturday that U.S. intelligence indicates Iran could restart its secret nuclear weapons program "at any time" and remains a major threat to the region.

Bush has also used the line about Iran being able to restart its nuclear program. That fact is supposed to scare us. It's supposed to be threatening. Of course, the illogic behind it would seem to suggest that Iran never should have stopped its nuclear program, because then it wouldn't be able to restart it. For that matter, it ought to make us realize that every potential threat that ever existed could, once again. Britain invaded us, in the early Eighteenth Century. Just because we're now friends, that shouldn't make us rest easy. After all, they could invade us again, at any time.

Turkana :: 3:19 PM :: Comments (2) :: Digg It!