The United States let loose a one-two diplomatic punch aimed both at undercutting Iranian power and rallying Arab financial and diplomatic assistance for Iraq when President Bush dispatched Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to the Middle East. Rice and Gates visit Egypt and Saudi Arabia this week in an effort to shore up support (WashPost) from U.S. Middle Eastern allies as the White House seeks progress on its primary regional initiatives.
Officials say securing a two-state solution for the Palestinian territories and encouraging a regional effort toward national reconciliation in Iraq remain top priorities, but thus far news reports from the Rice-Gates trip have focused more pointedly on the Iran question. Rice used the opportunity to unveil a new arms proposal (FT) aimed at bolstering some of the United States’ regional allies by supplying billions of dollars worth of weapons to Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia over the course of the next ten years. The deal still needs to pass through the U.S. Congress, where it may face an uphill battle (IHT). Yet whether or not they pass, the proposals may signal a period of retrenchment as U.S. officials seek to counter Iran’s influence, and particularly as they increasingly question Iran’s role in Iraq.
Iran, too, appears to be digging in, sharpening its retorts as pressure increases for Tehran to suspend its uranium-enrichment activities, which some see as a cover for an atomic weapons program. A diplomatic row over U.S. academics detained by the Iranian government continues to fester (RFE/RL), and specifically with respect to the nuclear question Tehran shows little sign of budging. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on July 25 repeated vows that Iran will never give up pursuit of a nuclear energy program, adding: “Acceptance of Iran’s legal rights is an inevitable end” (IRNA) to Iran’s nuclear case.
But modest UN sanctions, combined with a U.S. campaign to deter investment in Iran, are believed to be having an impact. A new move by U.S. pension funds (WSJ) could affect billions of dollars in investment and further compound the dysfunction in Iran’s oil sector. Mark Fitzpatrick, a nonproliferation expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, sees a further hardening of views (IHT) toward Iran on the UN Security Council ahead of talks on a new round of sanctions. In an Online Debate, Jake Colvin of the National Foreign Trade Council says sanctions have a poor record but Simon Cox of the Economist says the quirks of the Iranian economy make the country vulnerable to sanctions.
Many experts on Iran still see expanded talks with the United States as the best way of inducing Tehran to alter its posture on its nuclear program and other regional activities. Jeremi Suri of the University of Wisconsin-Madison sees hope in the improved relations (BosGlobe) that followed the opening of dialogue between Washington and Beijing in the early 1970s. Michael McFaul and Abbas Milani of the Hoover Institution urge “unconditional negotiations about everything” and say U.S. sanctions offer valuable leverage (Hoover Digest).
Few are under the illusion that such a dialogue will be easy. The second round of U.S.-Iran talks on Iraq produced a deal to set up a special panel to explore security measures but also involved recriminations from both sides about the other’s motives in Iraq. Iranian dissident Akbar Ganji, a strong critic of U.S. military threats toward Iran but a supporter of sanctions, argues the long process of improving Iranian behavior will involve a “fundamental reorientation of prevailing American policy discourse about the Middle East” (Boston Review).