U.S. forces are massing on Iran, and soon it will be time to strike. No, not militarily—that would be the height of insanity—but diplomatically. The Americans and Europeans are close to achieving the leverage they have long sought against Tehran through a deftly managed policy of political encirclement and economic strangulation. Just two big pieces still need to fall into place: a sign from Iran that it is willing to suspend uranium enrichment, at least temporarily, and a willingness on the part of George W. Bush to take yes for an answer—and strike a deal.
On the latter point, the Bush administration does seem to be shifting in tone. With the departure of several key Bush hardliners in recent months, it feels as if the regime-change fever has broken in Washington. While still talking tough, chief Iran envoy Nicholas Burns sounded almost magnanimous toward Tehran on Wednesday as he detailed the “multiple points of pressure” being applied on Iran’s leaders. Speaking at a Rand Corp. conference on Capitol Hill, Burns said the Western allies are still very willing to offer Tehran a nearly simultaneous "suspension for suspension"—that is, the West will stop the U.N. resolution process if Iran ceases enriching—even though the Americans and Europeans are in a much stronger position than they were several months ago. Just as importantly, Burns said the United States was sensitive to Tehran’s need to save face after its leaders have spent months defiantly insisting that they would never give up their uranium-enrichment program. “We understand they have their domestic political arena” to think about, he said. “We have carefully given the Iranians ‘exit doors’” —ways to retain a civilian nuclear program while guaranteeing there would be no bomb.
Burns also dismissed the still-current idea in Washington that Bush intends to attack Iran, saying the United States has “plenty of time” to pressure Tehran before it’s ready to build a nuclear bomb. How long? Perhaps extending into the next presidency, Burns said. That was quite a contrast to John Bolton, the just-departed U.N. ambassador who told reporters separately Wednesday: "I believe that ultimately the only real prospect of getting Iran to give up nuclear weapons is to change the regime." Not long ago, it was the Boltons who spoke for Bush, not the Burnses.
So now it’s decision time for Iran. The U.N. Security Council is only days away from a vote on a second resolution that would hit Iran with even tougher sanctions, including a ban on arms and an expanded list of officials and companies targeted for financial and travel restrictions, like the Revolutionary Guard Corps. Using a blend of Wall Street strategy and Tony Soprano tactics, Washington continues to strong-arm major global companies into giving up their Iran business. In the last nine months, U.S. Undersecretary of Treasury Stuart Levey told Congress this week, Washington has met with more than 40 big banks around the world to “discuss the risks of doing business with Iran.” (Translation: if you bank with the Iranians, you may suddenly find it tough opening up that branch or doing mergers and acquisitions in the world’s biggest economy, America’s.)
And this week, another big link in the Western policy of encirclement dropped into place when Russia finally joined with the Americans and Europeans after months of balking at confronting Iran. With Tehran already experiencing technical setbacks at its Natanz enrichment plant—its “cascades” of centrifuges aren’t working right—Moscow announced it would not ship fuel to Iran’s prized Bushehr reactor, which Russia is building. While Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denied reports that Moscow had linked completion of Bushehr to Iranian suspension of enrichment activities, U.S. and European officials say they’ve been reassured by Russia that this is the case, and Tehran appeared to fear just that. "It is clear that Russia has stopped construction of this plant under pressure and for political reasons," Iranian state television said. While Russia attributed its action to Tehran's failure to pay up on time, Western officials say the Kremlin is finally fed up with Iran's defiance over enrichment.
For Tehran, all this means that the price of its nuclear dreams has escalated dramatically in the last several months. “As the vise tightens with a second or perhaps third Security Council resolution," the political cost for Tehran’s leaders will become acute, Burns said. The proud Iranians, who see themselves as a benign regional power, have now been branded an international rogue by virtually every nation on earth except a handful of fellow rogues: Cuba, Venezuela, Syria and Belarus. And Iran's political elite knows it's all largely thanks to the over-the-top rhetoric of their radical populist president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is getting less popular in Tehran by the hour.
One important element remains. Much of Tehran's high-handed refusal to negotiate since Ahmadinejad’s election two years ago is rooted in the Iranian hardliners’ conviction that Bush is hopelessly bogged down in Iraq. “The Iranians may think they can wait this out until the ‘surge’ plan fails,” says Trita Parsi, a Washington-based Iran expert. But if Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of multinational forces in Iraq, succeeds in quieting things down next door, Tehran won't even have that card to play (yet another reason why the Democrats’ flagging efforts to legislate a deadline for Petraeus are foolhardy).
Will Iran deal? Signals so far seem mixed. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose views are vastly more important than those of the more visible Ahmadinejad, made a veiled threat this week to kick out remaining U.N. inspectors and withdraw from Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty protocol if a second U.N. resolution is passed, saying: “Until today, what we have done has been in accordance with international regulations. But if they take illegal actions, we too can take illegal actions and will do so." But outgoing U.N. Ambassador Javad Zarif, a moderate who is one of Tehran’s top negotiators, has been extended in his post by a couple of months as his bosses probe the diplomatic possibilities. Speaking to the Washington Rand conference by video (he’s not allowed to leave the U.N. environs in New York), Zarif sounded peevishly skeptical about a temporary suspension of enrichment on Wednesday. Yet he did not rule it out. Nor did he say another popular compromise plan—an international consortium that would place Iran’s program under U.N. and European supervision—was out of the question. “We are prepared to accept joint ownership and joint control of [the nuclear] facilities in Iran,” Zarif said.
If Bush can convert his hard-won bargaining capital into a diplomatic payoff, he might even have a shot at rescuing his presidential legacy. Currently the post-Bush landscape looks as bleak in foreign policy as any in memory. “No president will ever have handed over a worse international situation than George W. Bush,” former Clinton administration ambassador Richard Holbrooke told me recently. But if Bush completes last month’s deal committing North Korea to nuclear dismantlement—and then manages to find an accommodation that takes Iran out of the nuclear-arms business, too—presidential historians may find something else to write about beside Iraq. They could well record that this most unilateralist of first-term presidents left behind two splendid models of multilateral diplomacy in his second term.