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.
It has been a dispiriting few weeks. Several conservative political appointees have said that they are embarrassed to be working in the Bush administration. One called the new policies "preemptive capitulation." Another suggested that whatever credit the Bush administration deserved for keeping Americans safe in the seven years after 9/11 would be offset by the blame the administration will have earned for emboldening America's enemies with its reflexive weakness. And a former adviser to Condoleezza Rice said: "This is stunningly shameful."
But, our diplomats were not finished. In his appearance on Capitol Hill, Burns was asked about reports that the United States is considering opening a U.S. interests section in Tehran. He declined to talk about internal State Department deliberations but reported that such a move--one that would bring the United States one step closer to the "more normal relationship" Condoleezza Rice promised back in January without any indication that Iran intends to stop or even slow its pursuit of nuclear weapons--is under active consideration.
The Iranians have certainly been paying attention to this kinder, gentler Bush administration and its sudden embrace of the thank-you-sir-may-I-have-another school of diplomacy.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei understands that aggressive rhetoric is effective. "The positions of the Islamic Republic and the red lines of the Iranian nation are very clear and if the parties of negotiation negotiate within this framework, the authorities will engage in dialogue. But the condition is that no one threatens the Iranian nation," he said last week, according to a translation published on NationalReviewOnline. "The Iranian nation will cut the hand which is raised against the dear Islamic Republic. . . . There are those who say that the American president would do something in his final months of presidency. . . . [T]he Iranian nation will punish him, even if he is out of office and no longer has any official responsibility."
Two weeks before the Bush administration announced it would be crossing the final red line in diplomacy with Iran, and sending a senior U.S. official for direct meetings with a terrorist-friendly regime, Mahmoud Ahmad-inejad predicted that the United States would acquiesce. "They know that they cannot use the language of force against Iran," he said, "and must bend in the face of the will of the Iranian people."
And bend they did.
--Stephen F. Hayes, for the Editors