When the George W. Bush administration launched a high-profile campaign in January and February accusing Iran of exporting armor-piercing bombs to Shiite militias in Iraq, seized Iranian officials in Iraq, threatened cross-border raids against Iran, and sent a second carrier battle group into the Gulf, it seemed that it was entering a much more aggressive phase of Middle East policy.
A few weeks later, however, it is apparent that the administration’s earlier bluster was primarily for domestic political purposes—to reduce the sense that the administration had lost control over Iraq and the Middle East and to provide political cover for a move to open direct talks with Iran.
The Bush administration sought such direct talks with Iran because its need for Iranian cooperation to help resolve the Sunni-Shiite civil war in Iraq had become increasingly acute.
The shift toward talking with Iran began in late February, when the Bush administration reversed its earlier position of refusing to participate in any talks with Iran until it agreed to suspend its uranium enrichment program. It agreed to participate in a regional security conference organized by the Iraqi government in which Iran would also participate.
After that decision was announced, an unnamed "senior administration official" told the New York Times that the State Department was pushing for "ways to talk to Iran and Syria" but that the administration "did not want to appear to be talking to either country from a position of weakness."
In the past two weeks, the Bush administration has signaled its keen interest in talks with Iran by its failure to make an issue of the Iranian seizure of 15 British sailors and marines in what the British said was Iraqi territorial waters on March 21. In contrast to its seemingly confrontational approach to Iran in January and February, the administration chose not to exploit the incident to increase tensions.
On March 27, Defense Secretary Robert Gates gave a speech on Middle East policy that failed to make any reference to the issue but did hint strongly at a desire for talks with Iran. In the speech, Gates called the regional security talks in Baghdad "a good start toward improved cooperation," and added that the United States is "open to higher-level exchanges."
In what appeared to be a rationale for diplomatic engagement with Iran on Iraq, Gates insisted that Iran, like other neighboring countries, is "invested and involved to some degree or another" in Iraq. He said Iran and Syria needed to "play a constructive role going forward, even if they haven’t done so in the past" and referred in particular to "encouraging political reconciliation and a reduction in violence within Iraq."
Gates not only did not bring up the Iranian detention of British military personnel, but also failed to mention the issue of alleged Iranian supply of weapons to Shiite militias. A month earlier, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack had said those weapons would "certainly be at the top of our list" in any meetings attended by Iran.
The Bush White House exercised similar restraint on the British-Iranian conflict in the Gulf for 10 days. The White House did not comment on the issue until Bush responded to a question from reporters at Camp David on March 31, calling for the immediate and unconditional release of the British sailors and marines.
But Bush refused to suggest what the British should do about it, much less what he would do if it were U.S. military personnel captured by the Iranians. And the administration continued to avoid any statement that could be interpreted as raising tensions with Iran, right up to the time the sailors were released.
The new interest in talks with Iran stands in stark contrast with the administration’s public attitude of dismissal of the value of such talks with Iran in late 2006 and early 2007. In an interview with the Washington Post editorial board on December 14, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice suggested that talks with Iran would make no difference to Iranian policy toward Iraq.
"[I]f Iran and Syria … have decided that it’s in their interest to have an Iraq that is more stable than the one now," she said, "I assume they’ll act. I assume they’ll do it. And that we aren’t the ones who have to tell them to do it."
Rice further argued that the price of getting Iranian help on Iraq through negotiations would be "an Iranian nuclear weapon," and insisted, "That’s not a price that is worth paying."
Administration officials have suggested that the shift was made possible because of a new bargaining situation created by Washington’s tough policies introduced in January. That was the line that Gates took in January, when he asserted that the United States had to strike a more aggressive posture in order to have successful talks with Iran.
In talking with reporters on January 17 on a trip to the Middle East, he explained that without that leverage gained through such a posture, the administration would be the "supplicant" asking Iran to "stop doing x, y, and z."
That was also the explanation provided by the anonymous official to the New York Times last month. "By ratcheting up the confrontational rhetoric in recent weeks," the official was reported to have argued, "the United States appears to be more in control."
As applied to Iranian leaders, that argument makes little sense. It is difficult to imagine that Bush administration policymakers believed that its new tough line, even with the arrival of a second aircraft carrier, would suddenly cause Iran’s leaders to see the United States as "in control" of the U.S.-Iran relationship.
If "Bush" is substituted for "the United States," however, the explanation does make sense. By adopting the confrontational stance of January and February, Bush apparently hoped to create the appearance at home that he was more in control of the issue of Iraq.
The White House also calculated that a round of tough talk would make it politically easier to enter into talks with Iran later on. The main audience for the accusations and ostentatious threats against Tehran, therefore, was not the Iranians but domestic opinion.
It is not clear that the White House is prepared yet for serious diplomatic give and take with Iran. Administration officials hope the two U.S. carrier battle groups in the Gulf, along with accompanying moves preparing for war, will intimidate the Iranians, and that the financial squeeze will also exert pressure on Tehran.
Nevertheless, Bush’s blustering on Iran now looks much more like a cover for a decision to reverse his earlier policy of disdaining the need for an understanding with Iran. The combination of bluster and quiet acceptance of moves toward agreement recalls Richard Nixon’s Christmas bombing of Hanoi in 1972, which was presented to the U.S. public as a great victory over the North Vietnamese, even as Nixon and Henry Kissinger were preparing to make the key concessions demanded by Hanoi in the final round of peace negotiations.
According to a report last December by Warren P. Strobel and Jonathan Landay of McClatchy newspapers, Bush met several times with Kissinger in the months before raising tensions with Tehran in January. He hopes to approximate Nixon’s feat of maintaining an image of being "in control" even as he makes a move toward diplomatic agreement with Iran.
Gareth Porter is a historian and national security policy analyst who writes for the Inter Press Service. His latest book is Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam (2005).