The Bush Administration’s decision to send a top state department official to meet with a high level Iranian official is seen by many as signaling a change in American policy towards Iran. The fears of war, or at least America (or perhaps Israel) bombing Iranian suspected nuclear sites helped spike oil prices at near $150. Now, with both renewed fears of a US recession and a possible thaw in Iranian-American relations, oil is back down to “only” $130 a barrel. So what’s happening?
If you take Condoleezza Rice at her word, not much. If you read between the lines, however, a lot! Moreover, with people like former UN Ambassador and hawk John Bolton lamenting the “U-turn” in US policy, this could be a coup for Rice against the last vestiges of neo-conservative thought in the Bush Administration. Rice claims this isn’t a change but a “reaffirmation” of US policy. The US will not “negotiate,” but will respond to any changes in policy Iran takes. She notes the US has no permanent enemies, moving away from the talk about Iran as if it were the equivalent to Nazi Germany, with Ahmadinejad a modern Hitler.
The US probably will continue to insist Iran cease uranium enrichment before negotiating. But it’s clear this high level of a meeting isn’t simply to tell the Iranians “we’re sticking to our guns.” Rather, the US will likely lay out a scenario whereby Iran can gain real, tangible benefits from cooperating with the US on this, and what harm might befall the Iranian regime (probably financial rather than military) should they continue to pursue a path of isolation. This would be, in a sense, a promise to the Iranians that if they play ball, they will be rewarded. That sounds an awful lot like a negotiation, but the US will say “this has always been the policy.”
Secretary Rice deserves praise, especially if she managed to once again stymie neo-conservative plans to continue a militarist approach to the problems of the region. She no doubt had help. Secretary Gates is almost certainly a Rice ally, and the Pentagon, as noted yesterday, has no desire to see yet another war put on its plate. Moreover, Rice has been extremely effective at lining up pretty intense international pressure against Iran. I suspect there was a hidden message here: “if you pressure Iran with us now, it’ll make it more likely we can avoid war.” Perhaps unstated but understood “help me win this battle to get the President to choose diplomacy.”
This doesn’t mean this crisis still can’t explode. We don’t know what Israel’s plans are, or whether Israeli war games were part and parcel of this pressure. Israel recently released some top Hezbollah terrorists in exchange for the bodies of dead Israeli soldiers (why five live terrorists equals two corpses is beyond me), so they don’t seem to be looking for a fight either. Given how bellicose the US was on North Korea before finally giving in to the reality of the situation and making a deal, it would not be shocking to find a US deal on Iran before the election. That would also be a way to help John McCain by making it not seem that the Republicans are the party of ‘all war, all the time.’
If so, this continues the march of realism in American policy since 2006. The US moved from trying to defeat Sunni insurgents, to working with them. The US shed its ‘cowboy diplomacy’ in favor of trying to patch up relations with “old Europe.” The US made a deal on North Korea, and has reduced its efforts to control regional policies in the Mideast.
If the good news about Iran wasn’t enough, another milestone took place in Iraq today, as President Bush agreed with Prime Minister Maliki of Iraq on a ‘general time horizon’ for US troop withdrawal from Iraq.
The President has avoided a ‘timetable’ for one reason: the US has always thought that some presence in Iraq would persist for a long time. The idea was that once there was stability in Iraq, the Iraqis would agree to let the US stay — they’d need our help keeping the peace. However, the “Iraq SOFA fight” made it clear that Iraqi law makers were dubious of anything that would look like past colonialism. That and an unexpected intransigence on oil deals has signaled that the US thought of Iraq as a loyal ally needing US protection is not to be. Iraq wants us to leave, and one reason is that Iran and even radicals like al-Sadr still have a lot of influence on Iraqi policy. The US can hardly reject al-Maliki’s suggestion, nor can the US try to demonize hi the way they did is predecessor. Our influence on Iraqi politics is limited.
Again, calling it a ‘time horizon’ rather than a ‘time table,’ and insisting that there will be conditions rather than arbitrary dates is a way to save face — act as if this isn’t a major change. But the reality is that Iraqi wants the US to start planning our departure, and the US realizes that it doesn’t have the power over Iraq to say no, nor will the public at home permit it. Finally, it’s also clear that the only way to lower oil prices and limit the damage to the US economy before the election is to create the perception that the Mideast is not about to be engulfed by war, and there is no danger of Iran closing the straight of Hormuz or some other consequence of hostilities. If people think politics in that region is becoming more predictable and stable, oil prices will drop.
It’s dangerous to read too much into these positive developments. There is more uncertainty than clarity, and we don’t know how the Iranians, Israelis and others will react. But today there are least hints that perhaps the US is getting closer to extricating itself from Iraq, and moving away from crisis with Iran. If President Bush can actually make those things happen before he leaves office, then he will be doing a great favor for whoever becomes the next President.