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Reading the Tea Leaves on Iran

Author: Greg Bruno
Updated: November 16, 2007


Rhetoric between Washington and Tehran has sounded, at times, like a broken record. With echoes of Iraq and WMD President Bush has warned that a nuclear-armed Iran could threaten global stability and bring about World War III (IHT). Vice President Dick Cheney has been equally bellicose. “We will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon,” Cheney declared (TIME) in October 2007. That said, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s bombast has given Saddam Hussein a run for his money. The Iranian leader has said Israel should be “wiped off the face of the earth” and has remained defiant in proclaiming his country’s nuclear progression (Reuters).

Amid this war of words, however, are signs of a softening tone. On November 9, just two weeks after Washington announced new sanctions against the Revolutionary Guard Corps, U.S. forces released nine Iranian prisoners being held in Iraq, including two accused of membership in the Guards’ elite Quds Force (WashPost). Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad, had been meeting regularly with his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Kazemi-Qoumi, prior to the release (The Telegraph). In November 8 conference call, Rear Admiral Gregory Smith, spokesman for the U.S. military in Iraq, told Iran appears to have kept its promise to stop the flow of Iranian made roadside bombs into Iraq. The Bush administration, too, has reiterated a preference for diplomacy, albeit with a heavy hand. A new report from the UN’s watchdog left unanswered questions about Iran’s nuclear program, prompting the White House to renew calls for additional sanctions against Tehran (WashPost).

The diplomatic overtures come at a politically sensitive time for both governments. Members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany, are expected to meet November 19 to consider additional sanctions over Iran’s nuclear enrichment program. The United States and its allies accuse Iran of seeking to develop an atomic weapon, a charge Tehran denies. Western powers are nonetheless pushing ahead with economic pressure. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has said he prefers a block on foreign investment in Iranian oil and gas projects if Tehran doesn’t suspend its uranium enrichment efforts (Thomson Financial). China, and to a lesser extent Germany, have been wary of joining the sanctions bandwagon, says CFR Europe expert Charles A. Kupchan, though there are signs the countries will back the U.S.-led effort (Deutsche Welle). On the United States side of the ledger, a burdensome and bloody occupation in Iraq is seen by some as the impetus for a more dovish tone with Iran.  But Admiral William Fallon, head of U.S. Central Command, which oversees operations in the Middle East, tells the Financial Times the ultimate aim of U.S. policy is to force Iran “to come to their senses.” He says: “Attacking them as a means to get to that spot strikes me as being not the first choice in my book.”

Whether the oratorical softening will bear lasting diplomatic fruit is debatable, but then so is the effectiveness of economic sanctions. For its part, the Bush administration has been careful not to rule out the use of force in dealing with the Iranians. Some neoconservatives, including Norman Podhoretz, a foreign policy advisor to presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani, say failed negotiations have left the United States with “no alternative” but to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities (PBS). Yet other analysts say the softer approach is likely to win out. Speaking at the CFR in October 2007, Brookings Institution’s Iran expert Suzanne Maloney said, “if I look at the totality of what the Bush administration has done over the past six years,” when dealing with Iran, “it has consistently emphasized diplomacy.” This article in Time puts it another way: “Rhetoric doesn't always match reality in the realm of foreign affairs.”

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