The United States is in a huge foreign policy muddle in the Middle East. It wants to dominate and control Iran but requires the support of the world community to accomplish its aims. Diplomacy and sanctions require only a low level of support. On the other hand, to launch a military attack or green-light one by Israel, the United States needs far more backing.

This support does not appear to exist, and recent U.S. foreign policy actions are eroding that support even further. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported on August 13 that the United States refused to give the go-ahead to Israeli attacks on Iran’s nuclear facilities in talks between Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Could it be that the Bush administration finally knows when it is licked?

Israeli officials acknowledge that it would be difficult to launch such an attack without approval from Russia, China, and India, something that the United States would have to lobby those nations to achieve. The chances at present are extremely slim that any of the three will acquiesce.

U.S. condemnation of Russia’s military action to defend the breakaway region of South Ossetia, combined with the determination of the Bush administration to install missile systems in Poland and the Czech Republic, virtually guarantee that Russia will not do anything to help the United States foment more violence in its neighborhood.

Beijing owns much of the U.S. debt, continues to be one of Tehran’s largest trade partners, and is not about to be dictated to by Washington. India has defied the United States by entering into a pipeline deal with Iran. Exhaustive three-year nuclear treaty negotiations between the United States and India are utterly stalled. If the treaty is not presented to Congress in September, it will be dead.

Russia and China have repeatedly said that they see no nuclear weapons danger in Iran. Besides the tension over the pending treaty with the United States, India has little to say, since it is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, as Iran is. The skepticism of these nations is yet another reason why support for an Iranian attack is evaporating.

So the Bush administration is hoisted with its own petard. Whatever the more hawkish denizens of Washington want to do to Iran, they are not going to get the international support necessary for their desired action.

The most obvious alternative for the United States is to engage with Iran diplomatically. This is particularly difficult for the Bush administration because of its carefully burnished tough-guy approach. When Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William J. Burns merely appeared at the negotiating table with European Union members and Iran for the first time, the right-wing media reaction was swift and vitriolic. Critics on the right, , including two editorials in one week on the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial page, accused the Bush administration of “capitulation” to Iran.

Nevertheless international conditions with Russian, China and India may force expansion of this diplomatic approach, regardless of right-wing reaction.

The irony is that talking to Iran could be easy if the Bush administration would just relax. All the Iranians want for real talks to begin is to be treated as equals at the negotiating table, and to start the talks with no pre-conditions. This, too, is what Russia, India, and China want – not only for Iran, but for themselves as well.

The Bush crowd, however, is determined to patronize and insult everyone. During the current conflict in Georgia, Washington has implied that Russia is “not yet” part of the international community. The Bush administration coerced and threatened India over its nuclear program and the oil pipeline deal with Iran. China has been treated somewhat more gently, but the Chinese, too, chafe at criticisms of their environmental record, politics toward Tibet, and international dealings in the Sudan and elsewhere, which they see as hypocritical and intrusive.

When it comes to Iran, all three countries have signaled that they’ve had enough of Washington’s bullying. If however, the United States decides to treat Iran with mutual respect at the negotiating table, it might discover not only a way out of the impasse in the Middle East but improved relations with other key countries around the world.

Foreign Policy In Focus contributor William O. Beeman is professor and chair of the department of anthropology at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. He is president of the Middle East Section of the American Anthropological Association and the author, most recently, of The "Great Satan" vs. the "Mad Mullahs": How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other.

Get more news like this, directly in your inbox.

Subscribe to our newsletter.