A prevailing media narrative is that while Republicans have pitched a fit over Barack Obama’s negotiated deal with Iran over that country’s nuclear program, the seeds of such a deal were sown by the previous administration.
“Nine years ago, President George W. Bush agreed to join Europeans at the negotiating table with Iran,” wrote the New York Times's Alan Rappeport in July. Rappeport also quoted former Bush State Department official Philip Zelikow: “It’s conceptually a deep irony because this diplomatic outreach was originally designed and engineered by President Bush.” Zack Beauchamp at Vox.com said the same thing in a headline reading, “The Iran deal began with George W. Bush."
But that’s not true, says Bush’s vice president, Dick Cheney. In an interview with THE WEEKLY STANDARD, Cheney dismissed the idea that what the Bush administration pursued led to the current deal. “I can’t believe we would ever have agreed to what Obama has agreed to,” he said.
“Our objective always was that the Iranians would have no nuclear weapons. That was the Obama objective when they started,” Cheney said. The problem, he explained, was that the Obama administration did not stick to this objective.
“One of the things that Obama has done with the agreement that he has reached is that it basically legitimizes Iran to go forward with enrichment capability. That’s a major break with what has been the traditional practice of the [non-proliferation treaty],” Cheney said. “And also, I think there’s some six UN Security Council resolutions dealing with the Iranian nuclear program that got wiped out by virtue of that provision with this agreement.”
In Exceptional, Cheney’s new book co-authored by his daughter Liz Cheney, the former vice president outlines how the Bush administration made efforts in its second term both to ramp up economic sanctions against Iran as well as to consider diplomatic talks to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.
The Cheneys give credit to Stuart Levey, an undersecretary of the Treasury, for reinvigorating the idea of economic sanctions in 2005 and 2006, when the widely held belief was that Iran had been “sanctioned out.” Levey, they write, devised new ways to block economic activity by meeting with CEOs of international banks and impressing on them the reality of what business with Iran meant: money flowing directly to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and a regime that was the leading state sponsor of terror.
On the diplomatic side, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced in May 2006 that the United States would be willing to pursue multilateral talks with European allies and Iran. “To underscore our commitment to a diplomatic solution and to enhance the prospects for success, as soon as Iran fully and verifiably suspends its enrichment and reprocessing activities, the United States will come to the table with our EU-3 colleagues and meet with Iran's representatives,” said Rice.
Ultimately and unsurprisingly, the Iranians rejected the enrichment requirement and the negotiations never materialized. Is it fair to say this initial effort to negotiate started the process that got us to the current deal?
“I’m trying to recall, now, exactly what the transaction was. It actually was with our European friends, primarily. They were eager to pursue some kind of discussions,” Cheney said. “I’d have to go back and check the record for specific details. My recollection in part was that the Europeans were interested in having talks in order to avoid a situation where military force was used to deal with the Iranian threat, so there was an effort in the closing stages of our administration.”
But the Obama administration, the Cheneys argue in their book, took a “different approach,” one that presupposed the United States had been the roadblock to any agreement with Iran. Instead of recognizing, as presidents had done in the past, that relations with the Islamic Republic were marred by decades of Iranian aggression toward the U.S., Obama argued there were simply “serious differences” between the two nations.