The United States must stop “posturing” and start negotiating if it wants to avert President George W. Bush’s “World War III” scenario of a nuclear-armed Iran, Middle East experts say.
The doomsday warning by Bush, and bellicose remarks by White House contenders on the campaign trail, contrasted with a newly emerging argument that the United States must find ways of living with a nuclear Iran.
That argument was put forward last month by General John Abizaid, the recently retired commander of US forces in the Middle East, who said that the Cold War containment of the Soviet Union showed a way to handle Iran.
But at a press conference on Wednesday, Bush said that he had told world leaders “if you’re interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them (the Iranians) from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon.”
The comments came a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin became the first Kremlin chief to visit Tehran since World War II. Putin backed Iran’s right to nuclear energy and emphasized Moscow’s differences with the West.
The White House later characterized Bush’s remark as just “a rhetorical point” and not a prelude to Armageddon.
Iran, which insists it only wants peaceful nuclear energy, brushed aside the warning and announced Saturday that its top nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani was being replaced by an ally of hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, backed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, is said to be resisting administration hardliners led by Vice President Dick Cheney who favor a military option against Iran.
Cheney was due to deliver a speech to a Middle East think tank Sunday, five months since warning from the hangar deck of a US aircraft carrier in the Gulf that the United States would not let Iran acquire nuclear weapons.
But for Mehrzad Boroujerdi, an Iranian scholar at Syracuse University in New York state, Bush’s tone revealed frustration over the inability of the United States and its European allies to curtail Iran’s enrichment of uranium.
“The Bush administration has issued red lines and deadlines for Iran to meet and every single one of them has come and gone without any sort of follow-up action,” he said.
“Surely you’re not going to bring the Iranians to the table with this kind of implicit threat,” Boroujerdi said, calling Bush’s language “both unnecessary and counter-productive” but also indicative of US anger over Iran’s alleged meddling in Iraq.
“All this did was fuel speculation and anxiety. It was an unfortunate choice of words at an unfortunate time,” said John Calabrese at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
“The nub of the issue is to how to get the Iranians back to the negotiating table. The political season and the competitive posturing about who would be toughest on the Iranians is just unhelpful,” he said.
“One hopes that in the internal debate in the administration, some cooler heads like Defense Secretary Gates will prevail and the foolishness of attacking Iran will be realized.”
Campaigning for the 2008 White House nomination, top Republicans and Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton insist that they will never tolerate Iran being in a position to menace its neighbors and Israel with atomic arms.
Clinton last month voted for a Senate resolution that declared Tehran’s Revolutionary Guards a terror organization — a step that Democratic rival Barack Obama said represented a “blank check” for Bush to wage war.
The United States believes that Iran has only been emboldened by its dealings with the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency. The alternative espoused by Abizaid and others is to contain Iran.
“But what makes this different from the Soviet situation is how to guard against the reactions of Iran’s neighbors,” Calabrese said.
He warned of the potential for a nuclear arms race involving Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and highlighted Israel’s response as a major unknown after the Jewish state reportedly bombed a Syrian nuclear site last month.
“The United States could take care of Iran militarily in short order,” said Alex Vatanka, Iran analyst at Jane’s Information Group.
“But it’s still not useful for policymakers to use this kind of alarmist talk, even if Bush feels that Iran is an urgent issue that needs to be dealt with in his remaining time in office,” he said.