• The Bush administration’s “offer” to join direct talks with Iran reflects Washington’s international isolation on the Iran issue; the offer itself is simultaneously very significant and entirely fake.
  • The U.S. is still trying to ratchet up international pressure against Iran – proposing an “antimissile shield” for Europe, still threatening a return to the UN Security Council and calling for a “coalition” to impose economic sanctions – but the split between the U.S. and Europe is rising, and the Bush administration looks increasingly desperate.
  • New threats against Iran from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert during his visit to the United States appear to be mostly designed to shore up his hard-line credentials for a domestic audience, but still cannot be dismissed out of hand.
  • U.S. policymakers need to be pushed to challenge Bush’s claim that “nothing can be taken off the table” – to say precisely that some things MUST be kept “off the table,” and those things include threats of a preventive attack against Iran and threats to use nuclear weapons of any sort, both of which are violations of international law.
  • We need serious diplomacy; the U.S. should enter into direct talks with Iran without preconditions, and prepare to provide security guarantees and renounce talk of “regime change” in Tehran. The goal should be creation of a weapons of mass destruction-free zone throughout the Middle East.

The Bush administration’s decision to participate in talks with Iran is a direct result of its failure to win even a modicum of international support for its military and economic threats, as well as a rising chorus of influential military, retired diplomats, and other elite voices within U.S. policy circles. Bush’s plummeting approval ratings (down below 30%) and the increasing media and public focus on the abject failures and U.S. war crimes in Iraq have also played a key role in challenging the attack-Iran cabal. The uniformed military services tend to oppose a military strike against Iran since they are more aware of the potential consequences; the pro-war contingent appears to believe that “regime change,” based on the Iraq model, would somehow succeed. Whether they actually still believe that the Iranian population would welcome a U.S. attack or the overthrow of the regime with sweets and flowers remains uncertain, but Cheney’s longstanding leadership of the attack-Iran club makes the White House climb-down particularly significant.

On the other hand, Washington’s “offer” to negotiate with Iran only after Iran agrees to verifiably abandon all enrichment activity means that it is not yet a serious proposal. What happens to Iran’s enrichment program – which is legal for civilian nuclear power use under the terms of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) – is supposed to be the result of negotiations; imposing a its abandonment as a precondition means the U.S. is not yet serious about diplomacy. Initially, Iran welcomed the U.S. offer but rejected the preconditions. But European pressure has remained intense, since it has been clear that the “E-3” negotiators (France, UK and Germany) could not offer Iran the one thing Tehran was clear that it needed for negotiations to succeed: a security guarantee that it would not be the target of U.S. attack or destabilization “regime change” efforts. Only the U.S. itself could provide such a guarantee. But the Bush administration has not indicated any willingness so far to consider a security arrangement; earlier public State Department statements that “security guarantees are not on the table” remain on the table.

The U.S. also gave in to Europe’s proposal to offer a package of incentives, including a light-water reactor and guaranteed supplies of fuel, designed to entice Iran into giving up its enrichment program. Without a U.S. security guarantee Iran will likely reject that offer. Washington also agreed to take the issue off the Security Council agenda. And no sanctions were included in the package. But a day later the U.S. renewed its threats to return to the Council in the future if Iran does not agree to suspend its enrichment program. Although Bush claimed that Russia and China now accepted the U.S. threat to return to the Council, neither Moscow nor Beijing made any new statement that actually softened their longstanding opposition to sanctions. Earlier administration announcement of plans to build an “anti-missile shield” to protect Europe from Iranian missiles have gained no traction in Europe or among the U.S. public.

While international governmental pressure on Iran continues, there remains a significant split between the non-proliferation focus of Europe (willing to consider sanctions) and to a lesser degree Russia and China (preferring enticements), and the ideologically-driven “regime-change” approach of the U.S. (favoring regime change, including military attack). So far the Bush administration has failed to win broader support even for an anti-Iranian “coalition,” let alone a unified Security Council resolution, but this White House has shown its willingness before to move recklessly and unilaterally despite global opposition. So there is no room for complacency or assumptions that an attack on Iran won’t happen because the military is against it or because it is so obviously dangerous.

Israel continues to assert its own threats against Iran. Speaking to the U.S. Congress in late May, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert described Iran as an “existential threat” to Israel. Echoing Bush’s own claims about Iraq’s alleged WMDs in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Olmert said, “The international community will be measured not by its intentions but by its results. … If we don’t take Iran’s bellicose rhetoric seriously now, we will be forced to take its nuclear aggression seriously later.” He was answered with a huge congressional ovation. Olmert referred to the widely quoted statement from Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, claiming that he threatened to “to wipe Israel off the map.” In fact, as the London Guardian recently pointed out, on that specific quote, it appears Ahmadinejad has been mis-translated and did not say that. Further, however unhelpful it may be diplomatically, there is little question that much of Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric is as domestically driven as Bush’s and Olmert’s own.

Right now Israel appears willing to follow the Bush administration’s lead on Iran, rather than moving precipitously on its own. But despite his coalition government, Olmert remains significantly weakened at home, lacking the military credentials that made his predecessor, Ariel Sharon, so popular. Facing potential opposition to his U.S.-backed plan to permanently annex major blocs of settlements while withdrawing only 20% of the settlers from some parts of the West Bank, Olmert’s bellicose anti-Iran rhetoric may serve him well. During Olmert’s visit Bush restated his pledge to defend Israel if it is attacked by Iran; some analysts saw that as a subtle warning to Israel not to take the military initiative against Iran. But Olmert also claimed that he and Bush saw “eye to eye” on Iran. Whether Olmert might decide that he requires more than threats against Iran to stay in power, and how far he might be willing to act on his rhetoric, remain unclear.

Members of Congress and other policymakers, even some strongly opposed to a military strike on Iran, have been reluctant to challenge directly the Bush administration insistence that for diplomacy to work, “everything must remain on the table.” Some opposition appears to be strengthening in recent days. But it is still necessary to make clear to policymakers that some things indeed MUST be taken publicly off the table, made off limits from the beginning. Threats of war crimes (launching a preventive war or using nuclear “bunker-busters” or any other nuclear weapon or even threatening a nuclear strike on a non-nuclear state – all of which are war crimes) must not be considered acceptable components of the U.S. diplomatic arsenal.

The new report just issued by Hans Blix and his Sweden-based international commission concludes that disarmament was being set back by “increased U.S. skepticism regarding the effectiveness of international institutions and instruments, coupled with a drive for freedom of action to maintain an absolute global superiority in weaponry and means of their delivery. … The U.S., the sole superpower, has looked more to its own military power.” The report called on nuclear powers to reduce their nuclear arsenals, and said nuclear weapons should be banned altogether. “Weapons of mass destruction cannot be uninvented,” the report said, “but they can be outlawed, as biological and chemical weapons already have been, and their use made unthinkable.”

Our immediate demand must be for direct U.S. talks with Iran based on international law and treaties and with no preconditions. The goal of such talks: an end to U.S. threats of “regime change” and real U.S. security guarantees for Iran, normalization of relations between the U.S. and Iran, and a weapons of mass destruction-free zone throughout the Middle East, in which all countries in the region verifiably agree not to seek nuclear weapons, and Israel’s unacknowledged but provocative nuclear arsenal (the only existing nuclear weapons in the Middle East) is brought under international supervision and destroyed. The Blix report, significantly, also called for declaring regions free of weapons of mass destruction – “particularly and most urgently in the Middle East.”

Phyllis Bennis is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies where she directs the New Internationalism project. Her books include Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer and more recently Ending the Iraq War: A Primer.

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