Two events in the past couple of days have once again highlighted the incoherence that characterizes the Bush Administration’s policy vis-à-vis Iran: Hamid Karzai’s visit to the US and his CNN comment regarding Iran’s helpful role in Afghanistan and the third US-Iran round of talks about Iraq’s security.
Let me begin with Karzai’s comments and Bush’s response. Here are excerpts of Bush’s exchange with a reporter:
Q: President Karzai said yesterday that he believed Iran was playing a helpful role in Afghanistan. Was he able to convince you, in your meetings that that was the case, or do you still have concerns about Iran's role?
BUSH: … it's up to Iran to prove to the world that they're a stabilizing force as opposed to destabilizing force.
After all, this is a government that has proclaimed its desire to build a nuclear weapon. This is a government that's in defiance of international accord, a government that seems to be willing to thumb its nose at the international community, and at the same time a government that denies its people a rightful place in the world and denies its people the ability to realize their full potential.
So I believe that it's in the interests of all of us that we have an Iran that tries to stabilize, not destabilize; an Iran that gives up its weapons ambitions. And therefore we're working to that end.
The president knows best about what's taking place in his country. And, of course, I'm willing to listen.
But from my perspective, the burden of proof is on the Iranian government to show us that they're a positive force.
And I must tell you that this current leadership there is a -- is a big disappointment to the people of Iran.
I mean, the people of Iran could be doing a lot better than they are today. But because of the actions of this government, this country is isolated.
And we will continue to work to isolate it. Because they're not a force for good, as far as we can see. They are a destabilizing influence, wherever they are now.
The president will talk to you about Afghanistan. But I would be very cautious about whether or not the Iranian influence there in Afghanistan is a positive force. And, therefore, it's going to be up to them to prove to us and prove to the government that they are.
Now I understand that George Bush’s spoken words cannot be considered a good marker for either coherence or eloquence. Nevertheless, his response is an astounding statement about how convoluted his thinking about Iran continues to be.
First of all, true to form, he begins with an outright misstatement (more accurately, a lie). The statement, “after all, this is a government that has proclaimed its desire to build a nuclear weapon,” is an obvious untruth that like so many other untruths will probably not be challenged by the mainstream media, but through which George Bush hopes to etch in the American mind (or his own mind?!) the proven or “proclaimed” aspirations of the Iranian leadership for acquiring the bomb.
This is while the Iranian government has never articulated such a desire and in fact has repeatedly claimed, genuinely or disingenuously, the opposite. The Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons (as distinct from the pursuit of the capability to build nuclear weapons), as of today, remains a charge and assertion. The issue at hand, repeatedly described through intense European negotiations with Iran, concerns Iran’s enrichment-related programs and the fact that those programs will eventually give Iran the technological “capability” to build nuclear weapons even if Iran denies the desire to build the bomb. The point has always been that “they” cannot be trusted with the technology and not the proclaimed desire to build the bomb.
That Bush conveniently leaves out this fact, and proclaims Iran’s intention to build nuclear weapons, is not particularly surprising or revealing. Similar leaps in assertion were at work in connecting 9/11 to Saddam Hussein and in endowing Iraq with WMD. What is revealing is how the presumed Iranian aspirations for nuclear weapons are then mixed up with Iran’s other sins, including the denial of the people of Iran “to their rightful place in the world.”
In a mechanical and highly ideological fashion all of Iran’s sins are laid out to explain why Bush does not accept Karzai’s assertion that Iran is playing a helpful role in Afghanistan. Casting doubts on the words of “our man in Kabul” (and note that Karzai is no Nuri al-Maliki and no ambiguities surround the fact that he is America’s best man to run Afghanistan; no Shi’i connections can be made and he has no history of exile in Iran), Bush says, “it's up to Iran to prove to the world that they're a stabilizing force as opposed to destabilizing force,” disingenuously giving the impression that such a proof is possible for a government that is assumed to be “not a force for good.”
In the most revealing part of his answer, Bush immediately follows the sentence that blames the Iranian government for the isolation of Iran with the contradictory statement that the US “will continue to work to isolate it. Because they're not a force for good, as far as we can see. They are a destabilizing influence, wherever they are now.”
If this is not one of the clearest statements about the inability of the Bush administration to see things as they are perceived on the ground (by American allies such as Karzai), and substituting preconceived notions of good versus evil for coherent policy, I don’t know what is.
The United States and Iran have many common interests in the Middle East and adjacent areas that include some sort of stability and order in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as the maintenance of Iraq's territorial integrity (an interest Iran shares with Turkey and Syria and not necessarily with other countries in the region). It is true that Tehran does not see itself obliged to help the United States in getting a handle over the mess the latter has created in Iraq and increasingly so in Afghanistan. But this is not out of the desire to bring about instability in either of the two neighboring countries, with which it shares long and conceivably insecure borders. Iran’s approach to Iraq is more due to the sheer rationality of not rushing to help (or even causing a little bit of trouble for) a superpower that identifies Iran as “not a force for good.”
This situation can be altered with a change in American foreign policy, away from reliance on pressure (and connected economic bribes if Iran gives in to political and strategic pressures) and towards an acceptance of Iran as a worthy regional player with which one can engage in serious and meaningful negotiations on a whole host of issues. But, clearly, the language used by George Bush does not reflect a desire or willingness to bring about that kind of a change. In Bush’s world, Iran ought to help improve the security situation in Iraq or Afghanistan because the US demands it; even then it is the US that will decide whether Iran has met the expectations and not on the ground realities or what the governments of Iraq or Afghanistan think or say. Furthermore, all this should be done without the US feeling any need to change or even temporarily suspend its overall hostile frame of its policies towards Iran.
Realities on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq, however, are slowly revealing the incoherence (or impracticality) of Bush’s policies. Karzai talks about Iran’s helpful role in Afghanistan and acts accordingly while al-Maliki’s government in Iraq pleas for the continuation of US-Iran security talks before al-Maliki himself (along with his foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari) takes off for Iran in a few days for the government of Iraq’s own security talks with Iran.
It is within this context that Iran’s moves to agree with the talks with the US over Iraq must be understood. Iran is not naïve enough to think that the Bush Administration has changed its overall strategy regarding Iran. In fact, the Iranian leadership is acutely aware of the American strategy of initiating talks in the arena in which it is in most trouble (i.e., Iraq), while at the same time maintaining the language and policies of imposing as much political and economic pressure as it can muster on Iran in other areas.
Still the belief on the part of most significant players inside Iran about a unified and stable Iraq being the key to regional stability has led to a decision to engage in talks with the United States over Iraq’s security. These talks, the third of which occurred on August 6th (including ambassadorial and expert levels talks as part of a security subcommittee), are not negotiations but attempts to create an understanding about the nature of the Iran-US conflict as it is being played out in Iraq. This time around both sides considered the talks as useful, serious, and to be continued, with Iran calling for “a change in the broad policies and approach of the US in Iraq.”
From Iran's point of view, rightly or wrongly, the United States has no other choice but to eventually engage in negotiations with Iran due to historical, geographic, strategic exigencies as well as mutual interests in the region. Banking on this confidence, the Iranian leadership no longer considers talks with the US as taboo and in fact is ready to participate in multiple venues for discussions with the US even if the overall frame of hostile US policies continues. This is a significant and often neglected change in Iranian foreign policy, sanctioned by Ayatollah Khamenei. It is based on the argument that these venues of engagement will ultimately reveal the incoherence of a policy based on the notion of Iran being “not a force for good” as well allow Iran to pursue its interests in the region.
Approached in this manner, Iranian and American interests in Iraq and Afghanistan are not perceived to be necessarily in opposition and if the US can solve its problems in these two countries in ways that would allow an “honorable” exit, this is seen to be to Iran’s interest. In the words of Sadeq Kharrazi, Iran’s former ambassador to France, Iran understands that “in leaving Iraq the Americans need to save face because their humiliation may not be constructive, making the situation in the Middle East even worse than already is and forcing them to react angrily.”
There was a time in Iran, during the reformist era of Mohammad Khatami, when the Iranian leadership thought that Iran’s cooperation in Afghanistan and the negotiations over the nuclear issue would eventually open the path for a broader framework within which matters of contention between the two countries could be resolved. The Bush Administration's rejection of reformist overtures and the fiasco in Iraq set the stage for the rise of a hard-line foreign policy in Iran.
In time, however, the on the ground realities of Iraq and Afghanistan will force the US to sit down with Iran and acknowledge it as a regional player that shares many of US concerns in the region. Too bad that the beginnings of such an acknowledgment has come in a round about, almost underhanded, fashion and at a time when Iran’s foreign policy establishment is run by hardliners. One could say that hardliners in Iran could have asked for no more: an on the ground US foreign policy that is beginning to acknowledge Iran’s importance in the region, combined with an overall foreign policy frame of economic and political pressures that allow hardliners in Iran to attack domestic opponents with impunity using the pretext of American hostility.