NO SUBSTITUTE FOR POLICY
July 26 2008
United Arab Emirates
Believing that life comes in "two-week" chunks, the 5+1 Group
has given Iran another fortnight to provide an answer to a deal it
proposed almost two months ago. When the deal was first presented to
the Islamic Republic by the European Union’s foreign policy "czar"
Javier Solana the understanding was that Tehran would give its answer
in two weeks’ time. When that didn’t happen, the 5+1, that is to say
the five veto-holding members of the United Nation’s Security Council
plus Germany, graciously offered another fortnight.
Many observers had claimed that Tehran was prevaricating because
the United States had not directly joined the 5+1 negotiating
team. Recently, in Geneva, that changed. The US was represented by its
third highest ranking diplomat William Burns. And, yet, the Iranian
delegation asked for another fortnight of "reflections".
Did President George W Bush make a mistake by sending Burns to Geneva?
Those who think Bush can do nothing right, have exhausted the thesaurus
in search of adjectives to label his decision.
To drive the point home, we are also told that this is the first time
since the Islamic revolution in 1979 that Iran and the US engage in
a diplomatic encounter.
Not the first time
As always, reality is more complicated. This is not the first time
that the two sides meet.
In November 1979, President Carter’s National Security Advisor
Zbigniew Bzrezinski met Ayatollah Khomeini’s Prime Minister Mehdi
Bazargan in Algiers to offer the newly created Islamic Republic a
strategic partnership. Three days later, Khomeinist students raided
the US Embassy and seized its staff hostage.
During the hostage crisis Carter sent his Chief of Staff Hamilton
Jordan, disguised with the help of a wig and other theatrical props,
to Paris to meet Khomeini’s Foreign Minister Sadeq Qotbzadeh, again
with a sack full of carrots.
In 1980, Warren Christopher, Carter’s Deputy Secretary of State, led
a team in talks with Iran’s deputy premier Behzad Nabavi. The talks
led to the Algiers accord and the release of hostages in exchange
for a US pledge not to take action against the hostage-holders and
their political masters.
In 1986, President Ronald Reagan sent his former National Security
Advisor Robert C. McFarlane on a secret mission to Tehran with a
key-shaped cake, a copy of the Bible autographed for Khomeini and a
Colt .45 for the ayatollah, in a bid that triggered the "Irangate"
During the first George Bush and Bill Clinton presidencies, American
and Iranian diplomats met at least a dozen times, notably on joint
efforts to end the civil war in Tajikistan and the Armenia-Azerbaijan
war over the Karabagh enclave.
Under President George W. Bush, the two sides have talked on several
occasions since 2002 over Afghanistan and Iraq.
In May 2006, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice invited the Islamic
Republic to talks. Tehran dismissed the invitation as a sign of US
weakness and accelerated its uranium enrichment programme.
Tehran sees Washington’s decision to attend the Geneva talks as a
victory for the revolution. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has gone
further and called on his followers to "prepare for a post-American
Once again, reality is more complicated.
To start with, the Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei has had to set aside
a law passed by the Islamic Majlis (parliament) banning diplomatic
contact with the American "Great Satan". The Geneva encounter may be
painful for Washington "neocons". But it is even more so for radicals
in Tehran. The talks are about one thing only: Tehran’s response to the
EU offer that hinges on the central demand that the Islamic Republic
comply with resolutions passed by the United Nations’ Security Council.
The resolutions have a bottom line: Iran should verifiably disband
its uranium enrichment programme, thus jettisoning all possibility
of developing an atomic bomb. Tehran says it will never do that,
even if that means war.
The 5+1 group insist they will not accept anything less and that
Tehran’s refusal could lead to other resolutions that in time, could
lead to military action under Chapter 7 of he UN Charter.
Once the two weeks "breathing space" is closed, three courses seem
First, Tehran might comply with UNSC resolutions in exchange for
face-saving measures. This would be good news if only because it
would postpone the prospect of nuclear-armed mullahs pursuing dreams
of world conquest.
The second possibility is that Tehran will not budge. Ahmadinejad
believes that the US is "a sunset civilisation" and that the other
5+1 states lack the will or the ability to stand up to the Islamic
Republic. He counts on the possibility of Barack Obama becoming the
next US president. Obama has hinted that he is prepared to ignore the
UNSC resolutions. He has also said he will abandon Iraq, allowing the
Islamic Republic to move into the gap, creating a new and stronger
However, Tehran’s refusal to comply with the UNSC resolutions will also
be good news. It would prove wrong all those who claim that the current
crisis is solely due to Bush’s refusal to authorise dialogue with Iran.
The third possibility is diplomatic fudge of which Burns is a master.
He is the architect of the fudge over Libya, letting Colonel Muammar
Gaddafi off the hook in exchange for abandoning a nuclear project
that turned out to be no more than a pie in the sky. More importantly,
Burns helped shape the deal with North Korea, another "Axis of Evil"
member. By pulling down a cooling tower in front of TV cameras, plus
a few other symbolic gestures, Pyongyang has managed to buy time to
get out of its economic and political impasse.
Whatever the outcome of the talks, one fact will not change: the
Khomeinist regime is not like any of its neighbours, nor indeed any
other system in the world. Its ambition is to reshape the Middle East,
and later the rest of the world, after its own fashion. For its part,
the US also wishes to create a new balance of power in the Middle
East. Unless, one side gives in, the two rival ambitions are bound
to clash at some point.
For 30 years, everyone, including the US has been talking to the
mullahs, in the hope of changing their behaviour. The problem, however,
is not the behaviour of the regime, but its nature.
Talk is no substitute for policy. In 1990, James Baker, then US
Secretary of State, held high profile talks with his Iraqi counterpart
Tariq Aziz. The talks proved that neither side could retreat from
its basic position. The rest, as always, is history.