Press and pundits applauded George Bush's decision last month to send a representative to Geneva to join a meeting with Iran's nuclear negotiator. Barack Obama, the 2008 presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, said, "Now that the United States is involved, it should stay involved with the full strength of our diplomacy." Sen. John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, said the decision might be "the most welcome flip flop in diplomatic history".
To bring the Islamic Republic into compliance with its international commitments through peaceful means is a noble goal. Nevertheless, the White House reversal was the wrong move at the wrong time. Just as democracy is about more than elections, diplomacy is about more than just a willingness to talk. Absent the preliminary work necessary for its success and attention to timing, diplomacy can accelerate conflict.
Washington's insistence that Tehran cease its nuclear enrichment makes sense. While proponents of diplomacy call this a precondition, abandoning such a demand both unilaterally sets aside three UN Security Council resolutions and enables Iranian officials to run down the clock as they near irreversible nuclear capability.
Even if the White House waffles back to its earlier position, the damage is done. By establishing--and then voiding--the redline laid down by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that the United States would not talk until the Islamic Republic suspended its uranium enrichment, the Bush administration undercut the credibility of future redlines. Indeed, this is the message that many Iranians have taken. On August 1, 2008, for example, Ali Reza Hosseini, an employee at the Strategic Studies Institute at the Iranian Foreign Ministry, urged the Iranian leadership "not to take the secretary of state's ultimatums seriously".
This raises the probability that Iranian officials will misread the determination of Bush or his successor administration to prevent the Islamic Republic from achieving a military nuclear capability. Where self-described realists and progressives see flexibility, Iranian officials see weakness. "America has no other choice but to leave the Middle East region beaten and humiliated," stated Mohammad Ja'far Assadi, newly-appointed chief of the Revolutionary Guards' ground forces, on July 16, 2008.
Diplomacy absent opponent sincerity does more harm than good. The West has already suffered for its efforts to accommodate Tehran. Between 2000 and 2005, European Union engagement with Iran led to a near-tripling of trade. Rather than use its hard currency windfall to build civilian infrastructure and improve the economy, the Iranian leadership invested perhaps 70 percent of its hard currency and oil windfall into its military and nuclear programs.
Such an allocation is not the result of regime hardliners controlling appropriations, for the bulk of the work on Iran's covert nuclear program coincided with a period of reformist resurgence and so-called dialogue of civilizations. On June 15, 2008, the semi-official Fars News Agency provided lengthy excerpts from a panel discussion with Abdollah Ramezanzadeh, Khatami-era government spokesman. He lambasted not the content of President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad's nuclear policy but rather its style, and urged a return to Khatami-style diplomacy. "We had an overt policy that was one of negotiation and confidence-building," he explained, "and a covert policy that was continuation of [our nuclear] activities." He recommended that the Iranian government should "prove to the entire world that we want the power plants for electricity [but] afterwards we can continue with other activities."
Indeed, he signaled that Tehran may see the incentive package the White House signed on to in an entirely different light than the western diplomats who offered it. "As long as we were not subjected to sanctions, and during our negotiations, we could import technology," Ramezanzadeh explained. "We should have negotiated for so long, and benefited from the atmosphere of negotiations to the extent that we could import all the technology we needed."
Iranian officials gloat. They welcomed US concessions as affirmation that defiance succeeds. Meanwhile, with 6,000 P-1 centrifuges and a 4.8 percent enriched feed Tehran can produce 20 kilograms of highly-enriched uranium in just 16 days, a period between International Atomic Energy Agency inspections.
Iranians play chess while Americans play checkers. That Tehran's nuclear program has progressed so far is a testament to the Iranian strategy. In contrast, Bush's move has little to do with a well-thought out strategy and is more a flailing attempt to change legacy. As Iranian centrifuges continue to spin, the price of Bush's flip-flop will be high: Iranian overconfidence, erosion of future UN Security Council resolution effectiveness and forfeiture of future redline credibility. With its diplomatic card wasted, the next US president will have a stark choice: allow the Islamic Republic to go nuclear or accelerate the application of far more costly measures.
Michael Rubin, editor of the Middle East Quarterly, is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School.