Scott Johnson at Powerline does a nice job of summarizing the conservative dust-up over recent U.S. diplomatic efforts toward Iran. As he observes, many of us were stunned when Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns was dispatched to Geneva to "sit in" on the latest round of EU-3 diplomacy with Tehran.
While Mr. Burns didn't actively participate in the talks, his presence was viewed as something of an overture; others would describe it as an exercise in appeasement. Back in January, Secretary of State Condolezza Rice said the U.S. would pursue a "normal" relationship with Iran "only after" suspension of its uranium enrichment efforts. Six months later, the centrifuges at Natanz are still spinning and there sat Mr. Burns, listening to his Iranian counterpart reject the latest EU proposals, and vow that its enrichment program would continue.
In the current issue of The Weekly Standard, Stephen Hayes offers a blistering critique of the Bush Administration's flip-flop on Iran. Some of the strongest comments come from officials now serving in diplomatic and defense posts--the very folks who've witnessed the policy shift. One described the new approach as "preemptive capitulation," while other political appointees said they were "embarrassed" to be working for Mr. Bush.
Not so fast, counters Hugh Hewitt. He contends that the recent meeting in Switzerland was tantamount to a "last offer" from the west--an offer that was rejected by Tehran. As Mr. Hewitt writes:
The Bush Administration has done everything a superpower can do except use military action. Iran's mullahs come to the conclusion that the U.S. and Israel either will not or cannot stop their nuclear ambitions. If strikes are launched against the mullahs' nuclear facilities, the U.S. will have tried every avenue to stop the program without resort to bombing. but Iran is an outlaw regime and it does not care a bit what the world demands of it.
That may be true, but it presumes that someone (the United States or Israel) is prepared to act militarily. Mr. Hewitt must be privy to some "inside" information, or he's merely engaged in wishful thinking.
Fact is, there is no sign that the U.S. is prepared to use military force against Iran. Last year's flawed National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) virtually guaranteed it, claiming--speciously --that Tehran halted its weapons design program , although key efforts needed to produce a bomb (including enrichment) were continuing apace.
With Mr. Burns mission to Geneva, the White House shows every indication that it is prepared to stick with the diplomatic track, despite a lack of past success, and dismal hopes for progress in the future. True, the U.S. military has available options for dealing with the Iranian threat, but there is no sign those plans are being seriously considered. Indeed, there is every reason to believe that the next president, Democrat or Republican, will inherit an Iran with even greater enrichment capabilities, and more determined than ever to develop nuclear weapons.
As for the Israeli tea leaves, they are (decidedly) more difficult to read. But Tel Aviv faces its own problems in dealing with Iran. First, the Olmert government is embroiled by scandal, and there is some doubt about the prime minister's political survival. With a resignation or election in the offing, it is less likely that Israel would launch a strike against Iran, absent conclusive proof that Tehran is about to get the bomb.
Additionally, the Israelis face the serious issue of targeting a dispersed nuclear program with limited assets. The Israeli Air Force clearly has the capability to mount a limited strike against Iran's four primary nuclear sites. But follow-on attacks are more problematic, since the IAF would lose the element of surprise, essential for long-range attacks through unfriendly airspace.
As we've noted before, the Israeli campaign is essentially a "one-strike" option. And even if it is successful, there is the strong probability that Iran has a covert nuclear program, at sites unknown to western intelligence agencies or the Mossad. Under that scenario, Tehran's nuclear efforts would continue, and produce a weapon on a timetable similar to the current, overt track.
Giving your adversary a "final offer" is a viable policy option--assuming that "offer" is backed by the threat of severe consequences for non-compliance. So far, we don't see any "sticks" to complement the carrots being offered by the U.S. and its European partners.
What comes after diplomacy? Apparently, the Bush Administration doesn't want to go there, much to the mullahs delight.