Thursday, July 17, 2008

'Taming the hawk'

"Washington's decision to talk to Iran is a significant shift in US foreign policy." Column here.

It may be too early to proclaim an end to the "Cheney era", but Washington's decision to participate in Saturday's nuclear talks with Iran and send diplomats back to Tehran is a very significant shift. It marks a nadir for the gun-toting neoconservatives who dominated the first Bush term and for their unofficial champion, vice-president Dick Cheney, the stealthy advice-giver also known as "whispering grass".

Noisy sabre-rattling and a crescendo of shouted threats exchanged by Iran and Israel in recent weeks convinced many observers that the Middle East was on the brink of a new conflagration. They feared a "second Iraq" was in the making, again triggered by worries about real or imagined weapons of mass destruction.

That dreaded spectre appears to be receding for now. A "second North Korea" remains the preferred model for the US state department and the European allies – meaning talks leading to voluntary disarmament in return for security, aid and normalisation. This is just the sort of multilateral "soft power" horsetrading Cheney & Co cannot abide. . . .

Rice argued that the US should send a senior diplomat, William Burns, to join the nuclear talks – something Bush had always refused to do. She also proposed opening a US interests section in Tehran. Having said recently that he did not want to be remembered as a "warmonger", Bush softened. Cheney was reportedly at the meeting. He lost the argument.

This diplomatic reshuffle is set to continue in Ankara today, with both Mottaki and Stephen Hadley, the US national security adviser, both in town, and the Turks acting as willing go-betweens.

Hawks in both camps may still contrive to send the whole process back to square one. Iran could baulk at the last minute. Neocons such as former US envoy John Bolton, sneering yesterday at the administration's "intellectual collapse", could yet give Bush cold feet. But former Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry spoke for many people around the world when he described the US decision to talk as "the most welcome flip-flop in recent diplomatic history".

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