Thursday, April 13, 2006


By William Fisher

Going to war is always a last resort -- only when all avenues of diplomacy have failed.

Sound familiar?

It should. Because that was the mantra of the Bush Administration for well over a year before we invaded Iraq. But we now know that the White House and its minions cherry-picked intelligence, hoodwinked the Congress and spooked the American people with tales of WMDs and mushroom clouds and Iraq's Al Qaida/9/11 connection, and conducted pretend diplomacy while our generals were busily planning their "shock and awe" campaign.

Now we are hearing similar rhetoric concerning Iran. Except that there's one difference: There hasn't been any U.S. diplomacy with Iran at all, pretend or otherwise.

For the past couple of years, America has outsourced its Iran diplomacy to the folks Donald Rumsfeld famously derided as "old Europe". And resisted their many efforts to get us to join the talks directly.

But outsourcing is not a policy. It's a cop-out.

The truth is that the United States has no Iran policy. And we are about to witness the consequences.

Unlike the period of the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, when we alternately ignored or misinformed the United Nations, we are now fully engaged on Iran with the Security Council. But to what end?

There are no additional sanctions the U.S. alone can impose on Iran that would make any difference at all. And it is unlikely that expect Russia and China to go much further. Too much business for them there. And too much oil.

And even if they did agree, it seems clear that Iran would rather risk being isolated from the world and branded a pariah than be seen to be caving to the West. Moreover, Iran's risk may be exaggerated. Pariah or not, there will always be countries in the world prepared to sell Iran what it needs - and buy its oil.

Moreover, while it's possible that the "military option" our generals are now busily planning for may have its intended effect - terrifying the Iranians into believing they are about to become the next Iraq - it's equally possible they will see it as a faux option. The Iranian leadership may be stubborn and bigoted, but we can be sure it's under no illusions about the state of the U.S. military. They know the devastating effects our Iraq adventure has had on our war-fighting and war-financing capability. They are also fully aware of how pivotal their influence might be in helping to put the wheels back on the Iraq project.

The Iranians probably also know the American people are probably not in any mood to support another invasion of anybody any time soon. Especially when they come to understand just how large - and how relatively powerful - Iran is. Not even Dick Cheney would have the chutzpah to claim Iran was going to be another Iraqi cakewalk.

Consider another perspective. Put yourself inside the head of an average Iranian. Notwithstanding U.S. government spin, every bit of reliable reporting from inside Iran tells us that the Iranian people want their nuclear program to go forward. That they are proud of it. That, because they are surrounded by nuclear powers, they believe they are entitled to it to protect their own national security.

And it is not only the mullahs who feel this way - though they are of course driving President Ahmadinejad to front this latest chapter in the "clash of civilizations" for purely domestic political purposes. Most of what is left of the "reform movement" in Iran, though it opposes the mullahs, is reliably reported to feel the same way.

Paradoxically, current U.S. "policy" is having the unintended consequence of uniting Iran. It is fuelling Persian Pride. Given the intensity of Iranian nationalism, the millions of dollars Congress recently gave the State Department to "promote freedom" in Iran might better have been spent helping Katrina victims.

So how realistic is the way the Bush Administration is framing U.S. options - give up your nuclear ambitions, or else? (Or else what?)

This seems to many observers to be a phony option. Even our former Deputy Secretary of State, Richard Armitage - no dove he - is urging the Administration to start serious and comprehensive talks with Iran. No proxies. Face-to-face. It is in furtherance of that objective that our "old Europe" allies, plus China and Russia, might well play their most valuable role.

Can the U.S. talk to a country whose leader denies the Holocaust and vows to throw all the Israelis into the sea? Well, in the world of realpolitik, yes. We talk with oppressive and authoritarian regimes every day - and send hundreds of millions in aid to many of them. If you think the Iranians are the only ones who want to erase Israel, have a look at some of the newspapers that come out of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, or the Palestinian territories.

OK, so let's say we talk to Iran, offer all the carrots we can think of to win abandonment of their nuclear weapons ambitions, and still the talk gets us nowhere, what then? Can we live with a nuclear Iran? Well, in a weapons context, Iran isn't yet nuclear and appears to be some years from being there. Meanwhile, we are living with a nuclear Pakistan, a state far more unstable than Iran. And with a nuclear India, on whose future benign intent we have just bet the ranch. And with a nuclear North Korea, a charter member of the axis of evil, with whom the so-called six-party talks have thus far yielded little - except no war. And with a nuclear Russia, whose dysfunctional guardianship of "surplus" nukes should give the world a global heart attack.

Israel will disagree. Not unreasonably, it sees an Iran with weaponized nukes as an existential threat. Also not unreasonably, Iran sees Israel in the same way.

The bottom line is that it's clearly in the world's interest to get Iran to back off. But the Bush Administration needs to understand that merely rattling its sabers has real limits. It is now being obliged to confront those limits, and it is from that reality -- not from generals talking about deploying tactical nuclear bunker-busters -- that we ought to be developing an achievable Iran policy.