Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Astounding But True: The Road to the Iran NIE Ran Through Pyongyang

In the wake of the release of the Iran National Intelligence Estimate debunking the claims of a ongoing nuclear weapons program--claims that served as the justification for our campaign to isolate, sanction, and weaken Iran--China Matters reminds an astounded world that we predicted the collapse of the Bush administration’s strategy of confronting Iran back in October.

What I actually wrote was:

To summarize, the multilateral, sanctions-based united front against Iran is deaddeaddeaddeaddeaddead.

Dead, OK?

It was a situation that was pretty clear only if one saw how determinedly key players in other capitals were pushing back against our Iran policy.

It’s an unsurprising but regrettable fact of life that the United States—and its opinion leaders and shapers—find it difficult to understand an international situation in which our framing and priorities are not necessarily decisive.

The true surprise is how abruptly we kicked the props out from under the Israeli government.

For hardliners in Israel and the United States, asserting the existential Iranian nuclear threat to Israel was crucial to keeping the foreign policy realists at bay.

By undermining the position that our Iran policy has to be subordinated to the premise that Iran posed an imminent and implacable threat to Israel, the NIE opens the door to engagement with Tehran that might remove Israel—and reflexive U.S. support for its independent nuclear deterrent and its militarized regional security policy—away from the center of U.S. strategic thinking for the Middle East.

Maybe Secretary Rice has succeeded in imposing a new look at Middle East policy on the Bush administration; and maybe that explains why Frank Gaffney was squealing like a stuck pig about the Annapolis conference.

The unexpected interaction between North Korea and the Middle East—the furor over Israel’s bombing of the purported nuclear site in Syria—and its role in the efforts of conservatives in the United States and Israel to construct a nuclear crisis-driven narrative for Middle East diplomacy, is addressed in separate post from November, Uzi Arad’s Astounding Tales .

There I addressed the abortive attempt to create the appearance of a proliferation crisis in Syria and wrote:

But it turns out that the key foreign policy conflict in Washington isn’t between “bomb Syria and/or Iran” and “don’t bomb Syria and/or Iran”.

It’s between proceeding with the same policy of regional escalation that led us into Iraq or discreetly dialing back to the old Palestine-centric approach to solving Israel’s security problem—something I’d call creeping Bakerism.

And if the Palestinian issue is accepted in Washington as the true root of Israel’s problems, then the Iranian issue can be handled separately, as a wary negotiation and accommodation between the world’s only hyperpower and an important regional Islamic player.

So maybe the path to understanding the Middle East lies through Asia. Funny, huh?

Below is the full text of the October 26 post.

Iran Recapitulates North Korea—Not Iraq

October 25:

Speaking at a news conference after talks with Portuguese President Anibal Cavaco Silva, Putin pointed to the long negotiations with North Korea that led to an agreement earlier this year for that communist nation to begin dismantling its nuclear facilities. "Not long ago it didn't seem possible to resolve the situation with North Korea's nuclear program, but we have practically solved it relying on peaceful means," he said.

October 11:

In the overseas edition of the People's Daily -- the ruling Communist Party's mouthpiece -- China's former ambassador to Iran said six-party negotiations hosted by Beijing set an example for engaging Tehran, which is pressing ahead with nuclear development that Western powers say could give it weapons capability.

Keen observers will notice a pattern here.Russia and China—two of the five veto holders on the Security Council—want the North Korea deal to serve as the template for Iran.

What does this mean?

It means that world opinion has abandoned the Bush administration on the creation of a united front of coercion against Iran.

This is exactly what happened last year, in a development apparently only noticed by yours truly, after the detonation of the North Korean bomb.

Condi Rice criss-crossed the globe in a futile quest to cobble together an international coalition that would employ the mechanism of the U.N. sanctions regime backed by Proliferation Security Initiative to institute a destabilizing blockade of North Korea.

The effort finally collapsed at the APEC summit in Hanoi, when President Bush got the definitive word that China and even South Korea, our befuddled second-tier ally, wouldn’t sign on to the effort.

Instead of the United States pulling the strings as an army of righteous puppets encircled North Korea, our allies decided they didn’t have the confidence in our leadership.

More to the point, they weren’t assured of our solicitude in making sure they didn’t bear a disproportionate share of the political and geopolitical costs of a risky security initiative orchestrated by a great power with a truly terrible track record—and told Washington to play its own hand directly with Pyongyang.

There is a fundamental contradiction in unilateral policy trying to exploit the tools of multilateralism. Our callous incompetence in Iraq provided a practical demonstration of the risks. Our so-called allies don’t trust us. We have to get it front and stay in front.

As a result, Christopher Hill met with the North Koreans in Berlin and got the ball rolling. Although the negotiations continued under the aegis of the Six Party talks, it was always up to the United States to make the key concessions to demonstrate the viability of the process.

Given the absurd fiasco of the hardliner-orchestrated four-month delay in lifting the Banco Delta Asia sanctions, not only the North Koreans but the rest of the world community learned the importance of “trust yet verify” in gauging American commitment to any multilateral initiatives.

And it looks like America’s none-too-subtle attempts to leverage the power of its unilateral financial sanctions—actually targeting our recalcitrant “allies” who still insist on doing business with Iran, since we don’t do any business with Iran anyway—aren’t going to gain a lot of traction (the title of the LA Times article U.S. Move on Iran alienating for Europe pretty much says it all).

I would like to think that even observers overly enamored of the soft-power character of U.S. financial sanctions might recognize the fundamental and fatal contradiction at the heart of our policy—we don’t sanction the enemy, we have to sanction our allies because they don’t support our policy—but I’m not holding my breath.

To summarize, the multilateral, sanctions-based united front against Iran is deaddeaddeaddeaddeaddead.

Dead, OK?

What’s left is Dick Cheney’s Duke Nuke ‘em approach or North Korea-style engagement...or drift.

Never count a sociopathic monomaniac out, I guess, but with a year left in Bush’s lame duck administration, the hardliners bailing out in droves, and the uniformed services dead set against another Middle East war, the real choice is whether we will enter into a “grand bargain” with Iran or let the current toxic policy meander on.

Given the fundamentally dysfunctional character of our foreign policy, toxic meander is probably the way to go.

So what we’re going to get for the next 18 months is systematic well-poisoning by the hardliners working to sabotage direct negotiation with Tehran and preserve a debilitating state of hostility.

Current case in point: the North Korean nukes in Syria kerfluffle.

Even if there was a serious Syrian effort to develop some kind of nuclear thingee—and it’s still far from clear, as Jeffrey Lewis points out —it was years from fruition. It was probably worth observing but it certainly wasn’t worth bombing.

However, it was bombed, and is being pushed into the center of debate by hardliners in Tel Aviv and Washington.

The subtext, as I explained here , is to impose a zero sum them-or-us narrative of existential nuclear crisis on Middle Eastern affairs, in order to forestall bilateral talks between Washington and Tehran and a grand bargain that might help extricate us from our self-inflicted Iraq problem, but also remove Israel from its central place in Middle Eastern affairs as America’s only important ally.

The usual dingbat suspects in the House of Representatives are tossing Hail Maries in an attempt to use possible proliferation to Syria as justification for pulling the plug on the Six Party Agreement with North Korea, thereby discrediting the realists and negotiations with Axis of Evil nations.

But the practical hardliner goal isn’t war—it’s just to muddy the waters enough to keep peace from breaking out.

That’s what makes the current Iran flurry so tedious.Everybody’s bending over backward not to provide a sanctions process or casus belli that would empower the Washington hardliners.

Iran, Russia, China, and Europe are only interested in running out the clock until the Bush administration is safely out of office.

And maybe Israel, too.

Based on the way I look at things, this excerpt from Haaretz posted by the estimable Laura Rozen rang like a thunderclap:

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said a few months ago in a series of closed discussions that in her opinion that Iranian nuclear weapons do not pose an existential threat to Israel, Haaretz magazine reveals in an article on Livni to be published Friday. Livni also criticized the exaggerated use that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is making of the issue of the Iranian bomb, claiming that he is attempting to rally the public around him by playing on its most basic fears. Last week, former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy said similar things about Iran.

Because if significant elements of the Israeli government are ready to consider a world in which the Iranian nuclear threat is managed instead of destroyed—and Israel perhaps accepts a place under the US deterrent umbrella, mothballs its nukes, and abandons its regional ambitions for the miserable and depressing work of working on its local Palestinian problem—and leak their views to a receptive media and public, then the neocon dream of creative destruction of the Middle East is drawing its last breaths.

Unfortunately, of course, while there’s life there’s hope.

Hardline elements in Israel and the United States are only interested in keeping things screwed up enough that the Democrats can’t take the presidency and draw on the momentum of a credible, ongoing bipartisan realist process of rapprochement to normalize relations with Iran.

If they can screw up things badly enough, in another decade—an eyeblink to your far-sighted neocon--the door will be left open for genuine military conflict down the road when, maybe, the armed forces are done licking their Iraq wounds and are ready for another budget-fattening go at a land war on the Eurasian continent.

So we get this zombie kabuki, with the hardline advocates of a dead, discredited policy trying to infect the realists with their poison, and the realists are trying to pretend they’re zombies in order to avoid attack.

Outlook for 2007 and 2008: drift, danger, and dysfunction.

I think the reason the Left and Right fixate on the remote possibility of an Iran war is because it distracts us from the true nature of the U.S. situation: a distrusted, discredited, and marginalized hyperpower, unable to effectively play its military card, resented for its record of unremitting error and duplicity, feared as a dangerous, unpredictable and out-of-control force that must be cajoled, flattered, and accommodated at great cost while distracting the smaller and more vulnerable nations of the earth from the very immediate and real dangers that they now have to face alone.

We’re on the sidelines and nobody wants us to get back in the game.

1 comment:

Helena Cobban said...

Well done, me old "China"! As a newish reader of your blog I was happy you'd made note in this way of your october post-- as I just wrote on my own Just World News blog, here.

One small further question for you though. It strikes me as very possible that information from Pakistan, as acquired by the IAEA and referred to, albeit coyly, in ElBaradei's latest report, had played some role in the DNI and his cohorts having reached their latest, excellent set of conclusions. Do you have any thoughts or info on that? You can reply here or send me something by email. Thanks for any thoughts or leads you could contribute in this, oh wise one.