Addressing Iran in his State of the Union speech last night, President George W. Bush reaffirmed his administration’s policy that Iran must suspend enrichment of nuclear fuel before negotiations with the U.S. can begin. Rather than presenting a bold, new vision for resolving tensions with Iran, President Bush chose to repeat lines from previous years’ speeches, highlighting Iran’s role in Iraq, support for Hezbollah and Hamas, oppression of its people and the country’s ballistic missile program. According to President Bush:
“We're also standing against the forces of extremism embodied by the regime in Tehran. Iran's rulers oppress a good and talented people. And wherever freedom advances in the Middle East, it seems the Iranian regime is there to oppose it. Iran is funding and training militia groups in Iraq, supporting Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon, and backing Hamas' efforts to undermine peace in the Holy Land. Tehran is also developing ballistic missiles of increasing range, and continues to develop its capability to enrich uranium, which could be used to create a nuclear weapon.
“Our message to the people of Iran is clear: We have no quarrel with you. We respect your traditions and your history. We look forward to the day when you have your freedom. Our message to the leaders of Iran is also clear: Verifiably suspend your nuclear enrichment, so negotiations can begin. And to rejoin the community of nations, come clean about your nuclear intentions and past actions, stop your oppression at home, cease your support for terror abroad. But above all, know this: America will confront those who threaten our troops. We will stand by our allies, and we will defend our vital interests in the Persian Gulf.”
Last week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also reiterated an offer to meet anytime anywhere if Iran suspends uranium enrichment. Secretary Rice also noted that the U.S. has no desire for permanent enmity with Iran. “We have no conflict with Iran’s people, but we have real differences with Iran’s government – from its support for terrorism, to its destabilizing policies in Iraq, to its pursuit of technology that could lead to a nuclear weapon.”
Maintaining preconditions for negotiations with Iran has prevented any forward movement on either the nuclear issue or other issues of concern to the U.S. As many notable experts, including former Congressman Lee Hamilton, have said, preconditions for negotiations with Iran are a recipe for failure.
More than anything, Iran may be remembered as the biggest missed opportunity for the Bush administration legacy. Despite an opening after September 11, 2001 when Iran was cooperating with the U.S. on Afghanistan, President Bush chose to repay Iran by labeling it part of the “axis of evil” in his 2002 State of the Union speech. The following year, in May 2003, the Bush administration dismissed out of hand an Iranian proposal delivered through an official Swiss emissary, which would have put the broad range of issues of concern on the negotiating table – from recognizing the state of Israel, to dealing with Hezbollah and Hamas, to the nuclear program.
The administration has wrongly viewed diplomacy as a reward, rather than a requirement for dealing with countries that pose a challenge to the U.S. Countries with whom we disagree are precisely the countries with whom we must be engaged in direct dialogue.
It’s time for a new American policy on Iran and we need bold leadership to pursue a more far-sighted approach. While serious concerns remain over the Government of Iran's intentions and behavior, a diplomatic solution that includes direct, unconditional, bilateral, and comprehensive talks is the only way to resolve long-standing tensions between the United States and Iran. As Winston Churchill would say, “It’s better to jaw-jaw than to war-war."