Why Bush folded on Iran by Juan Cole


July 31, 2008 | Pundits and diplomats nearly got whiplash from the double take they did when George W. Bush sent the No. 3 man in the State Department to sit at a table on July 19 across from an Iranian negotiator, without any preconditions. When Bush had addressed the Israeli Knesset in May, he made headlines by denouncing any negotiation with "terrorists and radicals" as "the false comfort of appeasement." What drove W. to undermine John McCain by suddenly adopting Barack Obama's foreign policy prescription on Iran?

Back in mid-July, the Geneva talks were attended by representatives of the five veto-wielding nations on the United Nations Security Council, including the U.S., along with a delegate from Germany and chief European Union negotiator Javier Solana. E.U. parleys with Tehran have been going on for years, but the presence of undersecretary of state for political affairs William Burns signaled a new seriousness to Washington's commitment to the diplomatic track. What the U.S. and its European allies were offering Iran at the Geneva meeting was termed a "freeze for freeze" deal. Iran would not attempt to improve on its rudimentary ability to enrich uranium to low levels, or go beyond running 3,000 centrifuges, in return for a pause in the spiral of economic sanctions imposed on Iran by the U.N. Security Council.

The blogosphere and Op-Ed pages were rife with speculation about the reason for Bush's startling reversal. Former National Security Council staffer and Columbia University Iran expert Gary Sick implied that Vice President Dick Cheney and the hawks had lost control of Iran policy to foreign policy realists such as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in a behind-the-scenes Oval Office rumble. His thesis was supported by the howls of outrage against Bush's "appeasement" of Iran published in the Wall Street Journal opinion pages by former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton and by the American Enterprise Institute's Michael Rubin, both prominently associated with the neoconservative movement and with propagandizing for the Iraq war.

As usual, the neocon doth protest too much. Burns conducted no real negotiations with the Iranian delegation, simply restating Washington's insistence that Iran cease its enrichment activities. His presence at the negotiations was mainly symbolic. Still, on the symbolic level of politics, Washington's change of direction was momentous. Bush had clearly executed a "Rockford" or reverse 180 of the sort you see stunt drivers pull off in spy movies. And the reason for that reversal of course was, indeed, reality -- not just a recognition of the limits of the U.S. military, but a taste of $5-per-gallon gas. Bush and Cheney, both oilmen, invaded one oil-rich country and said its reconstruction would be paid for by a flood of cheap oil. Now, ironically, one of the main reasons they have had to scale back their ambitions for a second oil-rich country, Iran, is the crushing effect of expensive oil on the U.S. and world economy.