Wednesday, March 26, 2008

US moves toward engaging Iran

The coming few weeks are going to be critical in the standoff between the United States and Iran as the upheaval in the Middle East reaches a turning point. And all options do remain on the table, as the George W Bush administration likes to say, from military conflict to a de facto acceptance of Iran's standing as the region's dominant power.

One thing is clear. The time for oratorical exercises is ending. A phase of subtle, reciprocal, conceptual diplomatic actions may be beginning. An indication of this is available in the two radio interviews given by Bush last weekend and beamed into Iran, exclusively aimed at reaching out to the Iranian public on the Persian New Year Nauroz.
Significantly, ahead of Bush's interviews, former secretary of state Henry Kissinger spoke. Kissinger, incidentally, is a foreign policy advisor to the Republican Party's presidential nominee, Senator John McCain. For the first time, Kissinger called for unconditional talks with Iran. That is a remarkable shift in his position. Kissinger used to maintain that the legacy of the hostage crisis during the Iranian revolution in 1979 and "the messianic aspect of the Iranian regime" represented huge obstacles to diplomacy, and combining with "Persian imperial tradition" and "contemporary Islamic fervor", a collision with the US became almost unavoidable. Interestingly, Kissinger's call was also echoed by Dennis Ross, who used to be a key negotiator in the Middle East, and carries much respect in Israel.

Bush's interviews with the government-supported Voice of America and Radio Farda, especially the latter, were a masterly piece in political overture. He held out none of the customary threats against Iran. This time, there was not even the trademark insistence that "all options are on the table". There were no barbs aimed at President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. Least of all, there were no calls for a regime change in Tehran. Bush simply said something that he might as well have said about Saudi Arabia or Egypt. As he put it, "So this is a regime and a society that's got a long way to go [in reform]."

Bush spoke of the evolution of the Iranian regime's character rather than its overthrow. The criticism, if any, of Iranian government policies approached nowhere near the diatribes of the past. There was none of the boastful claims that the US would work toward isolating Iran in its region and beyond. In fact, Bush acknowledged, "There's a chance that the US and Iran can reconcile their differences, but the [Iranian] government is going to have to make different choices. And one [such choice] is to verifiably suspend the enrichment of uranium, at which time there is a way forward."

Bush assured that in return the US would be "reasonable in our desire to see to it that you have civilian nuclear power without enabling the government to enrich [uranium]". Here again, he pointed out that the problem is that "they [Iranian governments] have not told the truth in the past, and therefore it's very difficult for the United States and the rest of the world - or much of the rest of the world - to trust the Iranian government when it comes to telling the truth".

Any number of reasons could be attributed to the Bush administration finally jettisoning a war strategy toward Iran. First and foremost comes the unbearable financial cost of waging a war with Iran, which would have to be underwritten by China, Saudi Arabia and Japan. As Nobel Laureate and US economist Joseph Stiglitz stated last week, the impact of the subprime crisis in the US will persist for two to three years, and only after that time could the US economy hope to recover. Stiglitz blamed the Iraq war for dragging down the US economy. "It has proven to be an enormous error," he said, stressing that the Iraq war has been "a disaster in every way".

If in 2001 the US spent about US$4.4 billion a month on military operations in Iraq, the figure had jumped to $8.4 billion by 2007. By the end of the current year, the financial costs of the Iraq war could rise above $650 billion. The human costs have been equally unacceptable. The number of US troops fallen in Iraq now exceeds 4,000. Over 29,000 soldiers have been wounded. The brand "America" has taken a beating that will take years to repair. The horrific images of Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Fallujah, Haditha, Mahmudiya and Bagram will linger in memory for a long time.

An ABC News/Washington Post poll in March shows that 63% of Americans feel the Iraq war was not worth fighting and only a slight majority of Americans believe now that the war will one day succeed. Clearly, there is no stomach for yet another war in the remaining term of the Bush presidency.

1 comment:

saggezard said...

Are you teling me Ahmadinejad might be going to take his shoes off when he enters the oval office?