By Simon Tisdall (THE GUARDIAN, 17/07/08):
It may be too early to proclaim an end to the “Cheney era”, but Washington’s decision to participate in Saturday’s nuclear talks with Iran and send diplomats back to Tehran is a very significant shift. It marks a nadir for the gun-toting neoconservatives who dominated the first Bush term and for their unofficial champion, vice-president Dick Cheney, the stealthy advice-giver also known as “whispering grass”.
Noisy sabre-rattling and a crescendo of shouted threats exchanged by Iran and Israel in recent weeks convinced many observers that the Middle East was on the brink of a new conflagration. They feared a “second Iraq” was in the making, again triggered by worries about real or imagined weapons of mass destruction.
That dreaded spectre appears to be receding for now. A “second North Korea” remains the preferred model for the US state department and the European allies – meaning talks leading to voluntary disarmament in return for security, aid and normalisation. This is just the sort of multilateral “soft power” horsetrading Cheney & Co cannot abide.
Condoleezza Rice, the driving force behind this American turnabout, seems intent on testing just how far and how fast she can push Tehran towards the deal it claims to want. The US secretary of state’s decision to sign a letter accompanying a package of political and economic incentives presented to Iran last month by Javier Solana, the EU negotiator, made a big impact in Tehran.
Rice’s action told the Iranians, suspicious as ever that a two-faced America was deliberately holding back and planning a military attack, that Washington was committed to the proffered compromise.
Hossein Shariatmadari, managing editor of the country’s most influential conservative newspaper, Keyhan, was among those who argued that Iran’s nuclear case was so strong it would be foolish to please its enemies by refusing talks. “When our hands are full of documented proofs, we have no reason to refrain from negotiations,” he said.
But the fact the US-endorsed incentives package included a pledge not to resort to military force – an apparently explicit disavowal of regime change – was also highly significant for Iran’s leadership. Having threatened in so many words to wipe out Israel, the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has reason to worry that Israel and its friends might try to wipe him out first.
In a visit to Israel earlier this month, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US joint chiefs, reportedly warned that Washington would not give a green light for pre-emptive military action. That, too, may have helped sway opinion in Tehran. Mullen said, in effect, that Israel should make lots of noise – but should not make war.
Sticks have come with the carrots. The move by Rice, egged on by David Miliband, Britain’s foreign secretary, to engage diplomatically and call Ahmadinejad’s bluff also comes in full knowledge of his domestic political weakness as a re-election battle looms next year and the damage US-orchestrated sanctions are doing.
The Iranian president is much criticised for his perceived mishandling of the economy amid continuing high unemployment, price rises and unchecked corruption. Additional EU sanctions against Iran’s biggest bank, Bank Melli, and the decision by the French energy company, Total, to pull out of a giant gas field joint venture were serious, unexpected blows. They brought home the rising cost of the nuclear standoff.
Coincidentally or not, a series of positive statements about prospects for the nuclear talks in Geneva, notably from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, and Manouchehr Mottaki, the foreign minister, have followed. Tehran newspapers also reported that Iran was considering changing its definition of uranium enrichment suspension to facilitate a face-saving agreement.
All this preceded and may have decided Rice’s next move. Amid growing hopes that Iran will agree to a preliminary “freeze-for-freeze” deal in Geneva, she requested a meeting with George Bush.
Rice argued that the US should send a senior diplomat, William Burns, to join the nuclear talks – something Bush had always refused to do. She also proposed opening a US interests section in Tehran. Having said recently that he did not want to be remembered as a “warmonger”, Bush softened. Cheney was reportedly at the meeting. He lost the argument.
This diplomatic reshuffle is set to continue in Ankara today, with both Mottaki and Stephen Hadley, the US national security adviser, both in town, and the Turks acting as willing go-betweens.
Hawks in both camps may still contrive to send the whole process back to square one. Iran could baulk at the last minute. Neocons such as former US envoy John Bolton, sneering yesterday at the administration’s “intellectual collapse”, could yet give Bush cold feet. But former Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry spoke for many people around the world when he described the US decision to talk as “the most welcome flip-flop in recent diplomatic history”.