Read my lips – no attacks on Iran

By Gerard Baker (THE TIMES, 28/04/06):

AMID THE DISCORDANT daily buzz and hum of diplomatic traffic, much of the world seems to think it now hears the distinct and ominous tones of a march to another war in the Middle East. From the Pentagon they have picked up the insistent timpani of unattributed investigative reporting; from the White House, they figure, shrill political trumpets proclaim a presidency desperate to save itself from political oblivion. From the wings they can hear a rogues’ gallery of neocon caricatures playing the theme tune from Dr Strangelove. Out of Tehran grows ever louder the basso profondo of theocratic defiance. And in all of it the distinct, uncanny echo of what was heard four years ago — the steady drumbeat of diplomatic warnings, scary intelligence estimates, legalistically framed denials of immediate military plans.

The opinion pages of Europe and the dinner tables of America’s metropolises are jumping to the beat. “They’re going to do it again!” they shriek. If they listen really hard they can hear it as clearly as “Paul is dead” when they spun Abbey Road the wrong way on their turntables.

I have some advice for them. Take a deep breath. Lie down. Smoke something if you think it will help. Turn on your iPod and tune out all that noise your ears think they are picking up. The US isn’t going to be attacking Iran any time soon; not this year, not this administration.

Rightly or wrongly the Bush team is not remotely in the frame of mind it was in over Iraq four years ago. The political line-up is transformed — the collaborative strategy of Condoleezza Rice and Bob Zoellick at the State Department trumps all comers. The ambitious wings of the Pentagon’s civilian leadership have been clipped by setbacks in Iraq and infighting among the generals. Most important, even the hawks in the Vice-President’s office are far from convinced of the likely efficacy of pre-emptive strikes to take out Iran’s nuclear programme.

Four years ago — shamefully, perhaps — you could hardly find anyone in a serious decision-making role who worried deeply about the long-term political damage from a war with Iraq. Stop by any official’s desk in Washington these days and you will find nothing but angst and fear and frustration. Sure, there is the inevitable warning that Iran’s nuclear weapons status will not be tolerated. But the moment they get to the question of what to do about it, the neuralgia sets in. The targets are too diffuse, the intelligence too sketchy, the reaction too volatile, the realistic chances of success too low.

So why this steadily building noise? The music has changed in the past few weeks. But it has not become martial; rather the diplomatic overture has ground to a messy halt. A fleeting optimism this winter and early spring that, at a minimum, the US was on its way to meeting the first preconditions for a serious multilateral effort to deter Iran has been replaced by a profusion of doubts and discouragements.

Three months ago, the US’s new diplomacy-first strategy seemed to be paying dividends. Its principal benefactor was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad himself. His crazed rantings about Israel and the Holocaust and his self-perceived transfiguration at the United Nations General Assembly were starting to convince even the hand-wringers that something must be done.

The European Union’s leaders, eager to demonstrate that their opposition to the Iraq war was not the product of a terminal constitutional debility, were well out in front of their American counterparts. In February Angela Merkel gave a speech in front of American policymakers in Munich that, if it had come from the lips of Donald Rumsfeld, would have been characterised as hyperbolic warmongering.

The French, always more alarmed about the Iranian threat than they were about Iraq, were firmly onside. Jacques Chirac’s reminder in January that Paris retained its own nuclear option impressed even some deeply sceptical Americans.

The Chinese were making all the right noises. Back then even the Russians were reporting to Washington their frustration with the Iranians and their incredulity that the mullahs would not accept their uranium-dipped olive branch.

None of this guaranteed success. But the essential first requirement for real diplomatic action — absolute unity among the world’s powers — looked within reach. Nobody thought it would be easy, but sanctions could only have the slightest chance of working if the world could speak with one voice, and it seemed to be.

But that confidence has faded. China’s multilateral moment may have passed. At the White House last week President Hu Jintao offered little assurance of willingness to take action. Old worries are resurfacing about Europe. American diplomats look at France’s political paralysis and Germany’s costive coalition and wonder how big a priority either can make of nuclear Iran. Even from dependable Britain, they hear not the reassuring sturdiness of Tony Blair but the increasingly frantic shrieks of Jack Straw. Every time he shouts “War is nuts!” a little part of the wall of international resolution crumbles.

Worst of all, the Russians have been telling their American counterparts quite distinctly that they can’t rely on Moscow. Russia has bigger strategic fish to fry and isn’t in a mood to do the West’s bidding on this or on anything.

What does that leave? Not much. But certainly not an inevitable drift to war. It puts the US instead back, frustratingly, to square one.

The odd martial note slips out from Washington but it’s not really kidding anyone. The Gordian knot of Iran’s challenge is getting tighter; the diplomatic unravelling of it getting harder. The sword remains an unsought, unappealing, far-off option, not one this wounded administration has any intention of taking.