Despite recent claims otherwise, the White House has rebuffed negotiations
with Iran at every turn -- a major strategic blunder.
By Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett
Dec. 07, 2007 | The latest National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's
nuclear program raises questions once again about the Bush
administration's veracity in describing a nuclear threat. But President
Bush's worst misrepresentations about the Iranian nuclear issue do not
focus on whether Tehran is currently pursuing a nuclear weapons program or
when Bush knew
the U.S. intelligence community was revising its previous assessments.
Rather, the real lie is the president's claim that his administration has
made a serious offer to negotiate with the Islamic Republic, and that
Iranian intransigence is the only thing preventing a diplomatic
Negotiations over Iran's nuclear activities started in the fall of 2003,
initiated not by the United States, but by the "EU-3" -- Britain, France
and Germany. Iran, for its part, agreed to suspend its nuclear activities
as talks proceeded. But, contrary to Bush's statement at his press
conference this week, the United States did not "facilitate" these
negotiations. Indeed, the Europeans had launched the talks to fill a
diplomatic vacuum, after the Bush administration cut off its post-9/11
dialogue with Iran
and rebuffed an Iranian offer to negotiate a comprehensive resolution of
U.S.-Iranian differences earlier that year.
On the day the EU-3 and Iran announced the opening of their negotiations,
one of us was in Paris, meeting with a senior advisor to then-French
President Jacques Chirac. This official said forthrightly that the point
of the European effort was to "drag" the Bush administration into talks
with Iran that it had refused to enter on its own. For more than two
years, the Europeans tried to "drag" the administration in, but to no
In the spring of 2005, in the face of European pleas for U.S. support,
President Bush grudgingly approved token gestures: modifying the U.S.
trade ban against Iran to permit the sale of spare parts for civilian
airliners, and dropping his previous veto of Tehran's application to the
World Trade Organization. But still he refused to join negotiations.
Shortly thereafter, in the summer of 2005 -- before Iranian President
took office, after Tehran had suspended its nuclear activities for almost
two years -- Iran resumed nuclear development.
Finally, in 2006, faced with a breakdown in international support for
sanctioning the Islamic Republic, the Bush administration reluctantly
agreed to join the EU-3, Russia and China in nuclear negotiations with
Iran, if Tehran would again suspend its nuclear activities. But the
administration negated the impact of its decision by effectively gutting
the major powers' offer to negotiate.
On their own, the Europeans had crafted an incentives "package" for
nuclear talks in 2005, intended to clarify the benefits that could flow to
Iran from a negotiated settlement. This package included provisions for
economic and technological cooperation with Tehran. It also contained a
substantial section on regional security, including offers of a security
guarantee and recognition of a regional role for the Islamic Republic. But
to have real significance, such offers needed to be endorsed by the United
States -- Europe could not, on its own, assure Iran's security needs,
especially as President Bush and other senior U.S. officials publicly
challenged the Islamic Republic's legitimacy.
Unfortunately, when the Bush administration finally decided to back a
multilateral offer for nuclear negotiations with Iran in 2006, it refused
to endorse the incentives package unless the language dealing with
regional security issues was removed. Senior British, French, German and
EU officials have told us they recognized that removing these provisions
would render the package meaningless from an Iranian perspective.
Nevertheless, the Europeans went along -- judging that having Washington
join an offer of talks with Tehran was critical to preventing a complete
diplomatic breakdown, and calculating they could eventually persuade the
Bush administration to support the provision of strategic incentives.
Now, some of these same officials tell us that this was a profound
"miscalculation" -- the administration remains adamantly opposed to
putting strategic incentives on the diplomatic agenda with Iran. And to
this day, President Bush refuses to endorse statements by Secretary of
State Condoleezza Rice that "regime change" is no longer part of the
administration's Iran policy.
The diplomatic efforts of our European allies and other international
partners to broker serious negotiations with Iran are doomed to fail until
this deficit in U.S. policy is corrected. The Iranian leadership -- a
collective in which Ahmadinejad is not the most powerful player
strategic "deal" addressing Iran's core interests: security, the
legitimacy of the Islamic Republic, and Iran's regional role. Even with
Ahmadinejad in office, Tehran has tried repeatedly -- through discussions
with EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and other channels -- to elicit
some indication that Washington would be willing to consider Iran's
security interests and regional role as part of a negotiating agenda, but
President Bush has consistently refused to allow this. It is in this
context that the significance of Bush's real lie about Iran is exposed:
The Bush administration has never offered to negotiate with Tehran on any
basis that might actually be attractive to the Islamic Republic's
The chances that President Bush will fundamentally change his policy
toward Iran, even in light of the latest NIE, seem slim. Regrettably,
opposition Democrats are not defining a genuine alternative. Beyond
criticism of President Bush's "saber rattling," Democratic presidential
candidates offer, for the most part, only vacuous rhetoric about
"engaging" Iran. But are Democrats prepared to endorse negotiations with
Iran, even if Tehran has not resumed suspension of its nuclear activities?
More important, are Democrats willing to offer security guarantees to the
Islamic Republic, as part of a negotiated settlement of bilateral
differences? Among Democratic presidential candidates, only Barack Obama
has indicated that he might be prepared to go that far, and even he has
not been willing to argue consistently for a fundamental reorientation of
America's Iran policy.
Yet this is precisely what the situation requires: a reorientation of U.S.
policy toward the Islamic Republic as profound as the one with U.S. policy
toward China effected by President Nixon in the early 1970s. At that time,
China, which had tested its first nuclear weapons less than a decade
before, was in the midst of the Cultural Revolution. President Nixon,
however, recognized the importance of engaging a Chinese leadership that,
although still headed by Chairman Mao, was prepared to formulate its
foreign policy on the basis of national interest. Almost three decades
after the Iranian revolution, the potential for the United States to
engage the Iranian leadership on the basis of Iran's national interest --
and by doing so generate enormous benefits to America's strategic position
-- remains unrealized.