The confrontation between the United States and Iran is cooling and entering a new diplomatic phase, lessening the chances of a military conflict even as sharp rhetorical attacks persist.
The shift, building for weeks, came to a head with the weekend meeting in Baghdad between Iranian and American diplomats and has been pushed along by a new hardline stance from Russia toward Iran.
“There’s an increasing American willingness to try to ’manage’ the Iranian problem, rather than try to ’solve’ it,” Jon Alterman, a Mideast expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said Tuesday. “That’s making a difference.”
There are corresponding signs Iran wants a cool-down, too.
- The Iraq neighbors’ conference in Baghdad. Although U.S. and Iranian officials exchanged sharp words at one point, both seemed open afterward to continued interaction. President Bush called the talks constructive and U.S. envoy David Satterfield said he expected more. One Arab diplomat who was briefed by participants, speaking anonymously Tuesday because he was not authorized to talk publicly, said the talks among Iran, Syria and the U.S. were substantive and addressed several Iraq-related issues.
- Russia’s new stance. Russia, a key ally of the Tehran regime, criticized Iran in unusually strong language this week for failing to meet U.N. deadlines for curbing its controversial nuclear program, and also announced it would delay assistance to an Iranian nuclear plant. That angered Iran, but is also likely to give it pause, and perhaps moderate its position.
- Iran’s own internal changes. Hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has softened his attacks on the West after internal criticism that he was jeopardizing the country. His main political rival, former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, supports a more conciliatory stance toward the Arab world and the West, in particular spearheading recent talks with U.S.-allied Saudi Arabia aimed at defusing Mideast tensions.
- The U.S. approach. Three months after Bush brushed aside suggestions he engage Iran in efforts to stabilize Iraq, his administration is doing essentially that — apparently because it believes it now holds a better diplomatic hand than in December.
His administration remains under political pressure at home to counter Iran’s rise as a regional power.
“There are enough negatives (to any U.S. military strike at Iran) that if the Iranians seem to be willing to step back a bit, there is a new willingness in Washington to see how far you can take that,” said Alterman.
None of that means U.S.-Iranian friendship is near.
Iran is unlikely to back away from its goals — increasing its own regional influence and pushing forward with a nuclear program that Washington and others suspect aims to produce atomic weapons.
In its anger with Russia, Iran could even become more confrontational in the short term. Its foreign minister accused Israel and the United States on Tuesday of posing the main threats to the Mideast, prompting the U.S. and Israeli delegations to walk out of his speech at a Geneva forum.
Nor is there any sign Washington will back down from its insistence on curbing Iran’s nuclear program.
Just two months ago, the United States moved a second aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf in a sharp signal to Iran. It has arrested Iranians in Iraq, and accuses Iran of arming and training militants there to attack American soldiers with sophisticated roadside bombs. It also continues to push hard for new U.N. Security Council sanctions against Iran.
Many in the Bush administration, and many in Congress, would likely oppose anything that looks like capitulation to Iran, and want a continued hard line.
That was reinforced this week when Democratic leaders in Congress took out of a spending bill wording that would have required Bush to get congressional approval for any military move against Iran. Conservative and moderate Democrats pushed for the change, saying they feared tying the administration’s hands when dealing with Iran.
Despite that, “There is more potential for diplomacy now,” said Vali Nasr, an expert on Iran at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.
If diplomacy makes any headway, the United States would be unlikely to risk military action against Iran. America already is making a costly military push in Iraq and remains overstretched in Afghanistan, Nasr and others point out.
“With the U.S. people demanding results on Iraq, the administration probably cannot sacrifice stability in Iraq by escalating tensions with Iran,” Nasr said.