Bush's Iraq-Iran-Israel Dilemma

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Two visits to the White House earlier this week highlighted the key dilemma facing President Bush as he contemplates changes to his Iraq policy: One guest was former Secretary of State James Baker and the rest of the Iraq Study Group, which together with much of the "realist" establishment in U.S. foreign policy is urging the Administration to recognize that a dialogue with Iran (and Syria) is an essential component of any successful strategy to stabilize Iraq. Bush's other visitor was Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, whose main purpose at the White House appeared to be pressing the President to follow his own instincts and those of the hawks in his Administration by maintaining a tough line against Iran because of its nuclear program.

President Bush will soon discover what Baker and Olmert probably already know: That it won't be possible to do both.

Both Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair have begun publicly raising the prospect of talking to Iran, but only if Tehran mends its ways and suspends uranium enrichment. Otherwise, both men say, Iran will be isolated. But there's something almost comical about Blair and Bush setting preconditions for a conversation in which, however they might spin it, they're asking for help. Tehran ultimately shares an interest in preventing a breakup of Iraq, but the mayhem currently unfolding there hurts the U.S. and Britain a lot more than it does Iran. On balance, it hardly makes sense to Iran to help the U.S. and Britain in Iraq without getting anything in return.

Nor does Iran fear the "isolation" threatened by Bush and Blair. Its insouciant defiance of two U.N. deadlines to suspend enrichment suggests that Tehran doubts that the U.S. and its allies can muster serious sanctions or similar diplomatic pressure. And, indeed, Washington's effort to convince the Security Council to impose sanctions appears to have stalled in the face of resistance from Russia and China. Moscow and Beijing backed symbolic sanctions against North Korea only after that country had actually tested a nuclear device, and even then they made clear that their intention was not to isolate North Korea but instead to bring it back to the negotiating table (which they appear to have succeeded in doing).

Now both countries, which have strong commercial interests in Iran, are using the contrast between North Korea and Iran to argue against taking any kind of punitive action against Tehran. Unlike North Korea, after all, Iran continues to accept the terms of the Non-Proliferation Treaty — and even though it has expressed concerns over transparency and unanswered questions, and has challenged Iran to do a lot more to reassure the world over its intentions, the IAEA says it has found no evidence that Tehran actually has a nuclear weapons program. So Moscow and Beijing are pushing back against the sanctions option and warning that it could ruin prospects for a negotiated solution.

Until now, the U.S. has insisted that any uranium enrichment on Iranian soil is unacceptable, because this would give Iran the know-how that could potentially be used to create weapons. That's a position the Israelis strongly back, and it's the reason they tend to paint the current moment — when Iran is conducting enrichment experiments but is assumed to be as much as a decade away from having the capacity to assemble a bomb — as a life-threatening emergency not only to Israel, but ultimately to the entire West.

The problem is that while the U.S. and Britain tend to share an absolutist view of enrichment, their allies in Europe tend to be more ambivalent, and there's little support for that position beyond Western Europe. The U.N. consensus is that Iran should be required to satisfy concerns over its program, but not that it be prevented from ever exercising its right as a signatory to the NPT to enrich uranium under IAEA scrutiny.

If and when the U.S. comes knocking to talk about Iraq, Iran will see an opportunity to discuss a range of concerns — most notably to push for a compromise that would require the U.S. to retreat from its red line over enrichment. That, of course, would not sit at all well with the Israeli leadership and their backers on Capitol Hill, as well as the likeminded hawks within and outside the Administration.

The realists might counter that the North Korea experience and the current diplomatic landscape suggests that the hard line is unlikely to achieve the desired results with Iran anyway. Refusing to engage unless Iran concedes on enrichment runs the risk of doubling the diplomatic defeats for the U.S. — by adding successful Iranian defiance to the ongoing debacle of Iraq.

So the question of what the Bush Administration will do to reverse its fortunes in Iraq will necessarily become an internal referendum on its entire Middle East policy. And the battle to shape that policy may produce a long, hot winter ahead in the corridors of power on both sides of the Atlantic.