The Magazine

'Stunningly Shameful'

The Bush administration flip-flops on Iran.

Jul 28, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 43 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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On January 23, 2008, during her keynote speech at the glitzy World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Condoleezza Rice made a surprisingly friendly gesture to the Iranian regime. She said, in this final year of the Bush administration, Iran and the United States could move towards a "new, more normal relationship."

There was one condition.

Should Iran suspend its uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities--which is an international demand, not just an American one--then we could begin negotiations, and we could work over time to build a new, more normal relationship.

One day earlier the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council had agreed in principle to new sanctions in the face of continued Iranian intransigence on its nuclear weapons program. The Security Council had approved similar measures twice in the previous 13 months, and this third round of sanctions, Rice said, was necessary because of "Iran's unwillingness to suspend its enrichment and reprocessing of uranium."

In an interview with THE WEEKLY STANDARD in May, she reiterated this point. "We will negotiate with them if they suspend their enrichment and reprocessing activities and start down a different road."

In testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in mid-July, Undersecretary of State William Burns affirmed the Bush administration's unequivocal position.

What we've made clear, along with the P-5 plus one partners, our willingness to negotiate directly with Iran about the nuclear issue, and that's laid out now in three Security Council resolutions. It's premised on Iran's meeting its international obligation to suspend enrichment and reprocessing. So we're ready, with our partners, to engage directly with Iran on that basis.

But last week the Bush administration abruptly refined that position--as Barack Obama might put it. Without any indication that Iran was suspending its uranium enrichment program, the State Department announced that Burns would be heading to Switzerland for direct meetings with Iran's nuclear negotiators.

So what changed? Very little.

In the weeks leading up to the State Department's announcement, Iran had been deliberately provocative. At a Kuala Lumpur summit for developing nations, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad warned of George W. Bush's "satanic desires." Iran test-fired long-range missiles, including the Shahab-3, which is capable of striking Israel. And a few days after that, it rejected a generous aid offer from our European allies--backed by the State Department--that included nuclear fuel, assistance on a nuclear reactor, and improved trade and diplomatic relations, if the Iranian regime would simply suspend its uranium enrichment program.

The State Department response wasn't to get tough. Instead, Condoleezza Rice directed her diplomats to simply drop the one precondition for engagement that we had insisted on for years and in effect reward these provocations.

But, it's not just Iran.

On October 9, 2006, North Korea tested a nuclear weapon. The next morning George W. Bush condemned this "provocative act" and warned against proliferation. "The transfer of nuclear weapons or material by North Korea to states or nonstate entities would be considered a grave threat to the United States and we would hold North Korea fully accountable." He rejected North Korean requests for direct meetings. "Obviously, I made the decision that bilateral negotiations wouldn't work, and the reason I made that decision is because they didn't."

Three weeks later, chief U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill secretly met alone with his North Korean counterpart in China. Three months after that, they met again in Berlin. Eight months later Israel bombed a Syrian nuclear facility that had been constructed with North Korean assistance.

Despite all of this--despite North Korean nuclear aid to one of the world's leading terrorist regimes and despite its subsequent failure to account for its nuclear programs--in June the Bush administration volunteered to lift sanctions on North Korea under the Trading with the Enemy Act and, over the objection of our close ally Japan, decided to remove North Korea from the State Department's list of State Sponsors of Terror.