He said the NIE was misleading and argued that the least important part of Iran’s nuclear programme was creating weapons. But America’s pressure on Tehran will ease, Krauthammer concluded. “Bush will now go through the motions until the end of his term, leaving the Iranian bomb to his successor.”
Less than a month ago, a war against Iran about its nuclear plans seemed possible in 2008. Due to the NIE, it’s off the agenda. But hopes that Washington will seek a dialogue with Tehran are premature and probably misplaced. The White House’s knee-jerk reaction to the NIE is to sulk not engage.
This is probably just as well. History shows that efforts to hot-house Middle East agreements usually don’t work and can be counterproductive. At the end of 1999, Israel’s then prime minister Ehud Barak announced he would seek a comprehensive peace agreement with the Palestinians and his Arab neighbours the following year. What we got instead was the end of the Oslo dialogue with the Palestinians, the second intifada and hardline Likud leader Ariel Sharon as Israel’s prime minister soon after.
The key to peace is the attitudes at the base and not at the top. Until most Iranians and Americans want to get along, there is little chance their leaders will have the incentive to do so themselves. By the end of 2007, tests of opinion in America and Iran showed mutual incomprehension was largely complete.
You can’t shift entrenched attitudes with platitudes. But 2008 does seem to offer the opportunity for irrational bluster to be replaced by rational thought. There are two reasons why this will happen in the US. The first is that the NIE has made those calling for confrontation with Iran look silly. Former US ambassador to the UN John Bolton, the most vocal advocate of military action, has never been popular. He will now be ignored as well.
This will allow State Department diplomats, having wrested control over the Arab-Israel peace process from pro-Israel hawks in the White House, to set the agenda for Iran as well. Behind the scenes, diplomacy is under way. There will be UN sanctions, but they will be less punitive than seemed certain before the NIE. With the stick broken, there will have to be some carrot.
The second factor is that the American people are being distracted by the quadrennial variety show that is the US presidential election. All the main contenders continue to mouth the slogans coined after 9/11, but the focus is domestic affairs, not foreign conflict. The Republican Party is preparing to claim President Bush has won in Iraq. It will be reluctant to spoil the effect and hand the Democrats a fresh opportunity to beat them by talking about starting a fight it could lose with Iran.
The shifting attitudes in the US have been spotted in Israel. Following the NIE, some Israeli leaders denounced its findings, called for a witch-hunt against its authors and, perversely, claimed it actually meant the opposite of what it said. Just before the New Year holiday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who claimed in 2006 that Iran was months away from getting a nuclear bomb, called for a period of silence on the matter. Evidently, he has been told that the American people are in no mood to hear any more Iran war cheeerleading from Israel or its foam-flecked friends in the US.
While America pauses for breath, and possible intelligent thought about Iran, what is happening in Tehran?
Observers close to the Iranian political pulse counseled that nothing did more to rally support for the regime in general and Ahmadinejad in particular than the prospect of an American attack. Now that this issue has cooled, an opportunity has emerged for those within Iran horrified by Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric to make the running. Elections held every four years for Iran’s majlis are due in March. This is the first time since Ahmadinejad’s victory in the 2005 presidential poll for the those who lost then to remind the world they still have influence.
A moderate majority in Iran’s parliament and a sane majority in congress and the White House could make a difference to relations between Tehran and Washington. There will, however, be no quick fixes to the injuries they have inflicted on each other since the Iranian revolution first erupted three decades ago this year. But it could be a start of an encouraging new chapter. Patience is the key.