The Obama administration has agreed to engage Iran in six-party talks with Iran over a range of issues, which, insofar as it serves as a substitute for air strikes, is a good thing. But any hope these talks will promote serious change in U.S.-Iran relations is tempered by the Obama White House’s insistence that Iran’s IAEA-inspected nuclear activities are cover for an active weapons program, a stance taken right from the Bush-Cheney playbook that is even more indefensible in light of the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran (pdf) -- which continues to be the official consensus view of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies -- that any weapons program Iran may have had ended more than five years ago.
That Dennis Ross, the administration’s “senior Iran policy maker”, according to The New York Times, who was recently promoted from this position at the State Department to serve on the National Security Council in the executive branch, has argued in the pages of Newsweek that the “more Washington shows it’s willing to engage Iran directly,” the greater the chance the Europeans and “other parties, will feel comfortable ratcheting up the pressure” -- a euphemism for another euphemism, “smart sanctions” -- providing yet another reason to doubt these upcoming talks will yield much progress.
Consider that just a day after the administration announced it would accept Iran’s offer of talks, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs declared that the “Iranians have responsibilities to the international community to walk away from their . . . ballistic nuclear weapons program”, adding, “That's what the focus from our side will be in these talks and that's our goal." This isn’t the first time Gibbs, who one presumes chooses his words carefully when it comes to sensitive foreign policy issues, has referred to an Iran “nuclear weapons program” either -- see here, here and here.
Meanwhile, on Friday State Department spokesman Philip Crowley asserted that Iran is “out of compliance with their obligations under the NPT, IAEA, Security Council resolutions," a curious claim given Iran's absolute right under the NPT, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to develop civilian nuclear technology. Additionally, over the past few months, top ranking U.S. officials -- including ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the president himself -- have all asserted Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons.
Now, this would all be very strange behavior if one believed the administration is sincere in is stated to desire to open a new chapter in U.S.-Iran relations. After all, the IAEA, which inspects Iran’s nuclear facilities, declares in its most recent report that there’s no sign Iran is diverting its nuclear fuel to a weapons program (pdf). And the incoming head of the agency has said he’s seen “no evidence” Iran is pursuing nukes. Further, Obama’s pick to be Director of National Intelligence, Admiral Dennis Blair, testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this year when asked whether Iran was seeking to produce highly-enriched uranium for a bomb that “Iran has not yet made that decision” in the assessment of the U.S. intelligence community. In addition, despite Gibbs’ linkage between Iran’s missile and nuclear programs, Blair explicitly rejected the notion that Iran’s ballistic missiles were intended to someday be outfitted with nukes, noting that these “same missiles can launch vehicles into space”.
Rather than a breakthrough, it appears the Obama administration is angling to use talks with a Iran as a show of good faith intended as a pretext for the "crippling sanctions" Secretary Clinton and lawmakers on Capitol Hill are seeking to impose on Iran. In late 2007, based on an interview I conducted with House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (CT), I reported that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) had reneged on her promise to hold a vote on a measure declaring it the sole right of Congress under the U.S. Constitution, not the executive, to authorize military action against Iran. Perhaps now would be a good time to bring that bill back up for consideration, if only so the Democratic leadership could soothe concerns its anti-war rhetoric during the Bush administration was motivated more by partisanship and a desire to win elections than principle or humanitarianism, while also reasserting Congress' role in guiding foreign policy.
Any bets on whether that will happen?