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Tehran Twist

Bush’s new Iran policy.

Not since Reykjavik—the 1986 summit at which Ronald Reagan emerged from his meeting with Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev sounding like, well, Mikhail Gorbachev—has an American president turned so quickly on a dime. But there was President Bush on the final leg of his trip to Europe three weeks ago, emerging from meetings with French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. Jettisoning the administration’s long-standing and vocal contempt for European efforts to cut a deal with Iran over its nuclear program, Bush announced that, when it came to the Islamic Republic, the United States and Europe were now “on the same page.” National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said that, while Bush’s trip heralded a new “convergence” with Europe, it still left open the question of “who should the carrots come from and what should they be.”

As it turns out, the carrots will come from an administration whose own secretary of state was portraying Europe’s Iran strategy as a toothless enterprise only two weeks before the president declared otherwise. Reversing course, Condoleezza Rice announced last week that the administration would join the European Union in offering Iran incentives—aircraft parts and membership in the World Trade Organization—in exchange for halting its drive to build a nuclear bomb. Why the sudden about-face? On a foreign policy team where ideas typically bubble up to the surface, and where debates over seemingly trivial topics rage for months at the Cabinet level, this one comes from the president himself.

In fact, because the initiative did come from Bush—or, more exactly, his European interlocutors—it was subject to less of the bureaucratic wrangling that has been this foreign policy team’s signature. Before most administration officials had a chance even to come up with an opinion, the proposal had already been enshrined as official policy. Hence members of the Bush team have been lending their own Rashomon-like interpretations to a policy that is, if nothing else, wide open to interpretation.

WITHIN THE ADMINISTRATION, Hadley leads a camp of true believers, making a case for the European initiative that puts him at odds with more skeptical members of the Bush team. “Hadley argues that, given the right incentives, Iran just might bend to the Europeans,” says an official involved in the deliberations. So, too, according to their colleagues, do Undersecretary for Political Affairs William Burns, a proponent of engaging Iran when he was chief of the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs; members of the Nonproliferation and Near Eastern bureaus; and other NSC staffers. The argument that Iran may agree to a deal is dismissed by one administration hawk as “fantasy.” But the optimistic interpretation hasn’t been spun out of whole cloth. As former National Security Adviser (and Hadley confidante) Brent Scowcroft put it in a Financial Times op-ed last week, “Tehran’s actions suggest it is not indifferent to the threat of being hauled before the United Nations Security Council, or to the economic benefits from trade agreements with Europe and accession to the World Trade Organization.” In this telling, Iran—unlike, say, North Korea—desperately wants to avoid being cast as a pariah on the international stage. As evidence for this proposition, supporters of the deal point to, among other things, the fact that the Europeans were able to persuade Tehran to suspend uranium enrichment in 2003 and to enter into the current round of negotiations last November.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and their hard-line aides mounted a campaign to scuttle the administration’s embrace of the European position, beginning with a principals’ meeting the day after the president’s return from Europe and continuing until the moment the initiative was unveiled last Friday. Their opposition derives from more than bureaucratic pique. They don’t trust the Europeans to be firm with Iran, and they don’t trust Iran, period. Cheney, in particular, resisted to the end, arguing that, if negotiations collapse, the Europeans cannot be counted on to support a tougher U.S. stance. “What you could have is another Iraq scenario,” explains one Defense Department official, “where we involve the Europeans only to have them come back and ask for more time and more concessions.” Better, opponents of the European position argued, to continue with what has amounted to administration policy for the past two years: pressing the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council, where, they hope, it will be singled out for international opprobrium and possible sanctions.

Ultimately, Cheney and the Pentagon backed down but demanded two crucial conditions. First, Cheney insisted late last week that the Europeans agree, in writing, that they will support the United States hauling Iran before the Security Council if negotiations fail. Which the Europeans did: A document drafted by the European Union last week pledges, “We shall have no choice but to support referring Iran’s nuclear program to the U.N. Security Council” if Tehran rejects a permanent halt to its uranium-enrichment program. Second, according to officials, administration hawks have insisted on a timeline for Europe’s talks, with a drop-dead date probably arriving in the fall, a few months after Iran’s election this summer.

There is a third, and ultimately dominant, position in the administration: the cynical one. Its adherents split the difference between Hadley’s and Cheney’s arguments—they want to offer Iran incentives, but under the assumption they will likely be refused. Europe, not Iran, is the audience here. “The point,” says a senior administration official, “is, when diplomacy fails, we can say to the Europeans, ‘Hey, we tried.’” Rice, Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams, and Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, who worked out the final details with the Europeans last week, are the main engines of this compromise. But the logic comes mostly from the president himself, who has been assured by British Prime Minister Tony Blair that, if the United States backs the Europeans now, Europe will back the United States if the negotiations run into a brick wall. Administration officials claim that the British and French suspect the Iranians will not, in the end, cooperate. Once the Europeans know this for a fact, the argument goes, they will follow Washington’s lead and refer the Iranians to the Security Council—where hard- line U.N. Ambassador John Bolton will, if he is confirmed, be waiting for them. In the meantime, however, the administration has resisted moves—such as a reference to democratizing Iran, subsequently deleted from Rice’s announcement of the new U.S. policy—that could upset continental sensibilities.

FOR ALL THEIR differences, each camp’s strategy has one thing in common: It is unlikely to work. For the true believers, the ink had barely dried on last week’s agreement when Iranian negotiator Cyrus Naseri dismissed it as “really not something so significant that we could even discuss it as a trade-off for anything at all.” Underscoring the point, deliberations over the U.S.-European initiative were interrupted by the IAEA’s finding that Iran had blocked inspectors from a military and possible nuclear facility, was continuing apace with its efforts to build a heavy-water reactor, and was busy digging an underground tunnel system. “Regardless of what the Europeans do or don’t do,” says Ray Takeyh, an Iran scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations, “the Iranians will pursue a nuclear program so long as they believe it’s in their interest.” For their part, the hawks must contend with the certainty that, absent European support, the IAEA—where the Iranian representative feels sufficiently unthreatened that he goes to sleep when American officials speak, and where IAEA chief Mohammed ElBaradei spent much of the past two years shouting at Bolton, who led the U.S. delegation—will never refer Iran to the Security Council. As for the cynics who recognize the tactical importance of European support, they may find that European backing is not forthcoming. To begin with, it’s unclear whether the Europeans actually find themselves on “the same page” as Bush. The Germans, for one, remain wedded to the negotiating process, and there may not be sufficient evidence to budge their attachment, says a senior official—or anyone else’s, for that matter. When Russia announced, immediately after Bush’s trip, that it would supply nuclear fuel to Iran—a move the administration had been lobbying for years to forestall—European Commission external relations spokeswoman Emma Udwin painted the deadly shipment as “compatible with our own approach.” Moreover, even if the Europeans were to back a referral to the Security Council, says David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, “going to the U.N. would only be the beginning of a strategy, and there you have the problem of Russia and China.” Administration officials repeat the mantra that China has never vetoed a resolution unrelated to China and insist that Russia won’t block sanctions. But neither Moscow (itself the principal sponsor of Iran’s nuclear program) nor Beijing (which signed a $70 billion deal to purchase natural gas from Iran last October) has any reason to punish its client.

Nor does the administration seem to have a clear idea of what the point of the whole enterprise is meant to be, other than to insist it’s not military action. Hence the problem with today’s sideshow: American and European officials insist that Iran must never have the bomb, and yet, absent a willingness to match words with deeds on either side of the Atlantic, it clearly will. As the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center’s Henry Sokolski, who has studied Iran’s nuclear program extensively, puts it, “No other major gaps remain: Iran has the requisite equipment to make the weapons fuel, the know-how to assemble the bombs, and the missile and naval systems necessary to deliver them beyond its borders.” At this rate, rather than debating what to do about an Iran that wants to go nuclear, the Bush team and its European counterparts may soon be debating what to do about an Iran that just did.

Lawrence F. Kaplan is a contributing editor for The New Republic. This article appeared in the March 28, 2005, issue of the magazine.