Why Did Bush Blink on Iran? (Ask Condi)
By Richard Perle
Sunday, June 25, 2006; B01
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran knows what he wants: nuclear weapons and
the means to deliver them; suppression of freedom at home and the
spread of terrorism abroad; and the "shattering and fall of the
ideology and thoughts of the liberal democratic systems."
Bush, too, knows what he wants: an irreversible end to Iran's nuclear
weapons program, the "expansion of freedom in all the world" and
victory in the war on terrorism.
The State Department and its European counterparts know what they want: negotiations.
more than five years, the administration has dithered. Bush gave
soaring speeches, the Iranians issued extravagant threats and, in 2003,
the State Department handed the keys to the impasse to the British,
French and Germans (the "E.U.-3"), who offered diplomatic valet parking
to an administration befuddled by contradiction and indecision. And
now, on May 31, the administration offered to join talks with Iran on
its nuclear program.
How is it that Bush, who vowed that on his
watch "the worst weapons will not fall into the worst hands," has
chosen to beat such an ignominious retreat?
Proximity is critical
in politics and policy. And the geography of this administration has
changed. Condoleezza Rice has moved from the White House to Foggy
Bottom, a mere mile or so away. What matters is not that she is further
removed from the Oval Office; Rice's influence on the president is
undiminished. It is, rather, that she is now in the midst of -- and
increasingly represents -- a diplomatic establishment that is driven to
accommodate its allies even when (or, it seems, especially when) such
allies counsel the appeasement of our adversaries.
knows that the Iranians are undermining us in Iraq. He knows that the
mullahs are working to sink any prospect of peace between the Israelis
and the Palestinians, backing Hamas and its goal of wiping Israel off
the map. He knows that for years Iran has concealed and lied about its
nuclear weapons program. He knows that Iran leads the world in support
for terrorism. And he knows that freedom and liberty in Iran are
The president knew all this in 2003 when he
learned of Natanz, Arak and other concealed Iranian nuclear facilities.
After the International Atomic Energy Agency became aware of Iran's
hidden infrastructure in June of that year, we could have referred the
matter to the U.N. Security Council and demanded immediate action. But
neither our allies nor our diplomats nor the State Department experts
assigned to the White House desired confrontation. It would be better,
they argued (as always) to buy time, even though diplomatic time for
them was weapons-building time for Iran.
So, after declaring that
a nuclear Iran was "unacceptable," Bush blinked and authorized the
E.U.-3 to approach Tehran with proposals to reward the mullahs if they
promised to end their nuclear weapons program.
During these three
years, the Iranians have advanced steadily toward acquiring nuclear
weapons, defiantly announcing milestones along the way. At the end of
May, with Ahmadinejad stridently reiterating Iran's "right" to enrich
the uranium necessary for nuclear weapons, the administration blinked
The mullahs don't blink -- they glare. Two weeks ago, the
secretary of Iran's Expediency Council, dismissing the United States as
a paper tiger, said: "Something very important is happening. . . . The
Americans are no longer saying that Iran must be deprived of its
nuclear rights forever. Iran has accomplished a great thing."
"great thing" Mohsen Rezai sees is a weakened U.S. position, with
Washington backing away from the brave words of the past, and Rice
offering to substitute the United States for the E.U.-3. Just last
week, Ahmadinejad said that Iran will need nearly three months to
respond to our latest offer. (How time flies when you're having fun.)
years ago, I watched U.S. diplomats conspire with their diffident
European counterparts to discourage President Ronald Reagan from a
political, economic and moral assault on the Soviet Union aimed at,
well, regime change. Well-meaning diplomats pleaded for flexibility at
the negotiating table, hoping to steer U.S. policy back toward d?tente.
But Reagan knew a slippery slope when he saw one. At the defining
moments, he refused the advice of the State Department and intelligence
community and earned his place in history.
It is not clear
whether Bush recognizes the perils of the course he has been persuaded
to take. What has been presented to Ahmadinejad as a simple
take-it-or-leave-it deal -- stop the activities that could enable you
to acquire nuclear weapons and we will reward you, or continue them and
we will punish you -- is nothing of the sort. Neither the activities
nor the carrots and sticks are clearly defined or settled with our
allies, much less with Russia and China. If the punishments require
approval by the U.N. Security Council, the United States would need an
unlikely combination of approvals and abstentions from council members.
The new policy, undoubtedly pitched to the president as a means of
enticing the E.U.-3 to support ending Iran's program, is likely to
diminish pressure on Iran and allow the mullahs more time to develop
the weapons they have paid dearly to pursue.
administration since 1979 has had a serious political strategy
regarding Iran. That has been especially evident in the past decade,
when the bloom was off the rose of the Islamic revolution, the
Revolutionary Guard joined the baby boomers in middle age and the
Islamic republic sank into political, economic and social decline.
Opponents of the regime have been calling for a referendum on whether
to continue as an Islamic theocracy or join the world of modern,
secular democracies. They are sure of the outcome.
The failure of
successive U.S. administrations, including this one, to give moral and
political support to the regime's opponents is a tragedy. Iran is a
country of young people, most of whom wish to live in freedom and
admire the liberal democracies that Ahmadinejad loathes and fears. The
brave men and women among them need, want and deserve our support. They
reject the jaundiced view of tired bureaucrats who believe that their
cause is hopeless or that U.S. support will worsen their situation.
his second inaugural address, Bush said, "All who live in tyranny and
hopelessness can know: The United States will not ignore your
oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for liberty, we
will stand with you."
Iranians were heartened by those words,
much as the dissidents of the Soviet Union were heartened by Reagan's
"evil empire" speech in 1983. A few days ago, I spoke with Amir Abbas
Fakhravar, an Iranian dissident student leader who escaped first from
Tehran's notorious Evin prison, then, after months in hiding, from Iran.
heard this president's words, and he took them to heart. But now, as he
pleads for help for his fellow citizens, he is apprehensive. He wonders
whether the administration's new approach to the mullahs will silence
the president's voice, whether the proponents of accommodation with
Tehran will regard the struggle for freedom in Iran as an obstacle to
their new diplomacy.
Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) tried two weeks
ago to pass the Iran Freedom Support Act, which would have increased
the administration's too-little-too-late support for democracy and
human rights in Iran. But the State Department opposed it, arguing that
it "runs counter to our efforts . . . it would limit our diplomatic
<>I hope it is not too late for Fakhravar and his
friends. I know it is not too late for us, not too late to give
substance to Bush's words, not too late to redeem our honor.
Perle, former chairman of the Defense Policy Board and assistant
secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, is an American
Enterprise Institute fellow. firstname.lastname@example.org