By now the structure of the U.S. game with Iran is clear. In the first move, the United States and Iran make some small progress toward improved relations. In the counter move, hardliners in the United States and Israel launch attacks against Iran in order to sabotage these improving relations.

In the latest iteration of this game, the U.S. State Department has made an interesting gambit. It announced that Undersecretary of State William Burns would sit at the table on July 20 as members of the European Union entered into talks with Iran over its nuclear program. At the same time, the United States has been reported to be considering opening a formal American Interests Section in Tehran. These two actions will be the first serious public diplomatic activities between the two nations in nearly three decades. (Three earlier meetings in Baghdad between U.S. Iraqi Envoy Ryan Crocker and Iranian Ambassador to Iraq Hassan Kazemi-Qomi focused on security in Iraq).

The counter-moves came fast and furious. First, former UN ambassador and prominent neoconservative John Bolton launched a jeremiad against the U.S. government on July 15 in the Wall Street Journal. Criticizing the administration for failing to act militarily against Iran, Bolton placed his hopes on Israel to carry out the military attack that he fervently desires. “Instead of debating how much longer to continue five years of failed diplomacy, we should be intensively considering what cooperation the U.S. will extend to Israel before, during and after a strike on Iran,” he wrote.

Following closely on Bolton’s editorial, The New York Times printed another attack against Iran on Friday, July 18, just one day before the opening of the European talks, by Benny Morris, an historian at Ben-Gurion University. Like Bolton, Morris presents an Iranian nuclear weapons program as an established fact, implies that Iran would make a first-strike attack on Israel, and thus justifies pre-emptive military action on Israel’s part.

Both Bolton and Morris base their attacks on false premises. Diplomatic dealings with Iran have, in fact, succeeded on the few occasions they have been tried. There is no proof anywhere that Iran actually has a nuclear weapons program at present, a fact underscored by the National Intelligence Estimate of December 2007. In fact, Iran’s nuclear experiments are still at a primitive level, far from any possibility of manufacturing weapons. Iran has never directly threatened Israel and is not likely considering a first strike against Israel.

Such attacks have followed every minuscule improvement in U.S-Iranian relations during the Bush administration. Every first move in a warming trend – such as Iranian support for the U.S. war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, U.S. aid to Iran during the Bam earthquake in 2003, and Iran’s formal offer to enter into comprehensive negotiations with the United States in 2003 – has been followed by sharp criticism from both inside and outside of the Bush administration. Detractors have countered these advances with accusations of Iranian support for Hezbullah and Hamas, and support for “special groups” attacking U.S. forces in Iraq. True to form, the U.S. military announced the launching of a new crackdown on weapons smuggling from Iran to coincide with the Saturday talks,

None of these accusations, along with the Iranian weapons program and plot to launch a first-strike against Israel, has ever been proven. The most memorable of these attacks was the labeling of Iran as part of the “Axis of Evil” in President George Bush’s 2002 State of the Union Address, just as Iran’s military aid to the United States was beginning to create a climate of trust between the two nations.

Bolton, Morris, and their ilk may represent the last, weak gasp of the hawks who would embroil the United States and Israel in a disastrous confrontation with Iran. Indeed, for the time being, it seems that cooler heads are prevailing. Though Western commentators described the talks at the one-shot Saturday meeting negatively as a “deadlock,” William Burns’ official presence at the table was an important benchmark. Iran did not accept the Western proposals on the spot, but was given two weeks to respond. The Iranians appeared pleased. Saeed Jalili, Iran’s chief negotiator, called the negotiating process a “very beautiful endeavor.”

Despite this progress, the power of the American and Israeli extremists should not be underestimated. They still have the ear of Vice President Dick Cheney and a dwindling coterie of his supporters in the Department of Defense. A group of Israeli politicians, including Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Israeli Defense Force Chief of Staff Gaby Ashkenazi, have arrived in Washington, according to Mother Jones magazine, presumably to convince the Bush administration to allow them to carry out their attack.

Hostile rhetoric against Iran also plays into the U.S. electoral process. For American politicians, Iran is a universal bogeyman, useful in an election year as a device to show elected officials as tough on foreign miscreants. Indeed, since the Iranian Revolution U.S.-Iranian relations have been a centerpiece in election debates. Conspiracy theorists believe fervently that the Republican Party engineered an “October Surprise” in 1980 with Iranian officials – delaying the release of the American Hostages until after the U.S. Presidential election – and thus denied Jimmy Carter a second term. The purported event — true or not — has supplied a permanent political term for American elections.

In every presidential election since, U.S.-Iranian relations have been featured in presidential debates and campaign ads, with universal negativity toward Iran. This year is no exception with Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John McCain all expressing hostile attitudes toward Iran. And this year’s October Surprise is the rumor that the Bush administration will bomb Iran just before the election to give a boost to John McCain. Unless the Israeli hawks get there first.

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.

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