Robert Dreyfuss is the author of Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam (Henry Holt/Metropolitan Books, 2005). Dreyfuss is a freelance writer based in Alexandria, Va., who specializes in politics and national security issues. He is a contributing editor at The Nation, a contributing writer at Mother Jones, a senior correspondent for The American Prospect, and a frequent contributor to Rolling Stone. He can be reached through his website: www.robertdreyfuss.com.
Looking small and humbled on the big stage, trying to appear at once defiant and reasonable, President Bush yesterday addressed the United Nations General Assembly with few arrows in his quiver. Never before has the United States had so few allies, never before has an American president appeared before the world body so utterly bereft of credibility. The sprawling wreckage of American foreign policy was figuratively strewn across the room as Bush spoke. And when he addressed the central diplomatic question of the day—namely, what to do about Iran’s quest for nuclear technology and its likely plans to build a bomb—the president appeared naked and unarmed.
After three years of bluster, after three years of menacing Iran with military options ever “on the table,” after three long years of declaring forcefully that Iran will never gain access to nuclear technology, the president’s stunningly mild-mannered comments on the topic yesterday—“we’re working toward a diplomatic solution to this crisis”—may be a sign that the corner has been turned on Iran. It may be a sign that once and for all that the realists have won, that the international community has triumphed, that the opposition of Russia and China to sanctions on Iran has been victorious, and that Western Europe’s far more level-headed approach to Iran has prevailed.
For the neoconservatives, David Frum—Mr. “Axis of Evil”—wrote soon after Bush’s speech: “Make no mistake: boring as it was, the president's speech to the U.N. today was one of the most important of his presidency. It marks the final fizzling out of his Iran policy of the past three years.” Indeed.
Not that the signs haven’t been building, if less noticed than they should have been. Most stunningly, it was Bush himself who approved the five-day visit to the United States by former Iranian President Khatami earlier this month. In an interview in the Wall Street Journal last week, Bush said:
I was interested to hear what he had to say. I’m interested in learning more about the Iranian government, how they think, what people think within the government.
Meanwhile neoconservatives in and out of government here fulminated against Khatami’s visit and denounced the administration for letting him into the country at all. The next day, Condi Rice suggested that even a temporary halt by Iran to its nuclear efforts would be enough to restart talks with Iran. Not permanent—temporary, mind you.
Bush’s nice-nice on Iran, and Condi’s willingness to bend over backwards to reopen the talks with Iran came after the most recent deadline of August 31. This was the supposed drop-dead date for Iran to capitulate to the U.S.-inspired Security Council resolution calling for a halt to uranium enrichment. Iran did not comply. The Bush administration’s conciliatory moves also came as leader after world leader—from Kofi Annan (“I do not believe sanctions are the solution to everything”) to Sergei Lavrov (Russia “unambiguously prefers the path of negotiations for the resolution of the Iranian problem”) to Jacques Chirac (“I am never in favor of sanctions”)—continued to box in the United States diplomatically.
It’s clear that the Europeans, led by France’s Chirac, are designing a carefully constructed diplomatic dance to entice both Iran and the United States back into a prolonged period of negotiations, giving both countries face-saving ways to do so. Whether the two religiously inspired fundamentalists who preside in Washington and Tehran will seize the opportunity isn’t a slam dunk, but it’s looking increasingly like the neocons aren’t going to get the war against Iran that they want.
Four years ago, of course, precisely the same diplomatic phalanx opposed Bush as he threatened Iraq. There are, I’ve written, many parallels: the Bush administration accusing Iran of harboring al-Qaida and building WMD, neoconservative analysts warning that time is running out, Pentagon task forces making contingency plans for war and so on. Back then, too, Bush smilingly promised to go to the United Nations to seek support for the crusade against Baghdad, only to launch a unilateral war of aggression on his own months later, after dismissing the United Nations as feckless and cowardly. Then, however, Bush had an army to invade Iraq. This time, that army is bogged down in Iraq, stretched to the breaking point, and the international community is both older and wiser. And the neoconservatives have been taken down a peg or two.
So, even as the president’s speechwriters were working on his U.N. address, Iran’s president was meeting with Iraq’s prime minister in Tehran, and Iran’s interior minister was meeting with his counterparts from all of Iraq’s neighbors to discuss a plan to prevent the Iraqi civil war from spilling out of Iraq into the region. Even James Baker, the Bush family’s consigliere who heads a realist-minded task force called the Iraq Study Group, told a Washington news conference on Tuesday that he would meet a top Iranian official soon to discuss U.S. policy in Iraq and the region.
Suddenly, stabilizing Iraq—and minimizing the political fallout from Iraq at home—may be more important to the Bush administration than sparking yet another conflagration in the region.
We can only hope. True, we could wake up any fall morning to the news that American planes are conducting bombing raids on Iran’s dozens of nuclear facilities—raids that would be likely to expand to countless other Iranian military targets, from airports and missile installations to ports, military bases, government offices and beyond. Or, we could awake to hear that Israel, on a more limited scale, has initiated attacks of its own on Iran. But more and more, it’s starting to look like the realists have won this fight.