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U.S. Marks Policy Shifts in Iraq, Iran Nuclear Talks

July 18, 2008 at 6:10 PM EST
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The Bush administration signaled policy shifts Friday by agreeing to set a "time horizon" for Iraq troop reductions and sending a top U.S. envoy to Iranian nuclear talks. Analyst Michael Rubin and columnist Trudy Rubin examine the moves.
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MARGARET WARNER: Over the past five years, the president has drawn clear red lines on two Mideast issues, the first, no timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: These decisions about troop levels will be driven by the conditions on the ground in Iraq and the good judgment of our commanders, not by artificial timetables set by politicians in Washington. Setting an artificial deadline to withdraw would send a signal to our enemies that, if they wait long enough, America will cut and run and abandon its friends.

MARGARET WARNER: The second, the U.S. won’t negotiate directly with Iran over its nuclear program until Iran stops enriching uranium.

GEORGE BUSH: The United States has offered to come to the table with our partners and meet with Iran’s representatives as soon as the Iranian regime fully and verifiably suspends its uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities.

MARGARET WARNER: But this week saw changes on both fronts. President Bush hinted at one on Iraq at a news conference Tuesday, when he suggested a new flexibility in the face of Iraqi government demands for a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal.

GEORGE BUSH: I believe that, you know, they want to have an aspirational goal as to how quickly the transition to what we have called overwatch takes place. Overwatch will mean that the U.S. will be in a training mission, logistical support, as well as special ops.

You know, the Iraqis have invited us to be there. But they share a goal with us, which is to get our combat troops out, as conditions permit. As a matter of fact, that’s what we’re doing.

MARGARET WARNER: The White House statement issued today said Mr. Bush and Prime Minister Maliki had agreed that a security pact now under negotiation would include a — quote — “general time horizon” for meeting aspirational goals, such as the further withdrawal of U.S. forces.

The shift on Iran came earlier in the week, with the announcement that Undersecretary of State Bill Burns would join negotiations in Geneva tomorrow between Iran and the European Union. The talks will focus on the incentive package the Europeans have offered Iran to give up its nuclear program.

The Bush administration also let it be known that it’s considering establishing a diplomatic presence in Iran for the first time since the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy there.

New wording of withdrawal framework

MARGARET WARNER: Two views now on the administration's moves.

Michael Rubin worked on Iran and Iraq issues in the Defense Department in President Bush's first term, and served as an adviser to the U.S.-led occupation authority in Iraq. He's now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. And Trudy Rubin is foreign affairs columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. She has written extensively on Iraq and Iran, and has reported from both countries.

They are not related.

And, Trudy Rubin, first to you.

How big a climbdown is this on Iraq, the White House statement today about the agreement between the two countries on the future of U.S. forces there?

TRUDY RUBIN, the Philadelphia Inquirer: I think it is a big deal.

I think that it came about as the result of an unexpected surge of nationalism by Iraqi leaders, especially Prime Minister Maliki. And one has to remember that what's happened in the past couple of weeks is not just this statement. There was supposed to be a status of forces agreement, a heavy duty legal framework.

That has pretty much been abandoned in favor of a temporary agreement. What we're seeing here is Iraq becoming a real place with real nationalism and the prime minister having to appeal to his own public in view of upcoming elections, and not seem like he is simply a toady of the United States.

MARGARET WARNER: A big deal, Michael Rubin.

MICHAEL RUBIN, resident scholar, American Enterprise Institute: I actually agree with Trudy that nationalism in Iraq is a key issue. We're in an election year in the United States as well. And next year will be -- in 2009 -- will be an election year in Iraq.

However, because there is not a firm, set deadline, President Bush is saying, if conditions are met, I really do see this as a political repackaging of the same policy which we have had before.

MARGARET WARNER: What -- briefly, what kind of a timeline -- when the Iraqis have talked about it, what have they said they're looking for?

MICHAEL RUBIN: Different Iraqis speak with different voices. Some Iraqis, people like Muqtada al-Sadr, for example, who does -- his followers do remain a force, have asked for a much more rapid withdrawal.

Nouri al-Maliki has said that he wants a withdrawal. And even some of the Kurdish figures, like Barham Salih, have talked about timelines. However, it is not clear. And, remember, in October, we can expect a surge in violence in Iraq, before the U.S. presidential election, and in January, as they test our new president. So, conditions are unclear.

MARGARET WARNER: Trudy Rubin, could this be -- could this be just a repackaging, the language that came out today, where the agreement really will be squishy on a real timeline, but it will have something way out in the future that Maliki can point to?

TRUDY RUBIN: The language may be squishy, but I think what it tells us -- and the administration has to be aware of this -- is that Iraq is not South Korea or Japan or Germany, where we have had long-term troop agreements, of the kind that Senator McCain has said he would we could have with Iraq.

This is a country in the Middle East, where nationalism is a force, and where there are memories of colonial occupation. So, I think this is a sort of warning that, whatever kind of agreement we have, it's not going to be for long-term basis. And there will be have to be some kind of horizon for when most U.S. troops, perhaps not all, would leave.

A clear policy shift on Iran talks

MARGARET WARNER: All right, let's switch to Iran now. And then we will get back to both of them.

And, Michael Rubin, so, why is the administration sending Undersecretary Burns to this meeting tomorrow, without preconditions, when refused to do so for so long?

MICHAEL RUBIN: Well, I think what we are seeing right now with Iran is a real shift in policy. In many ways, it is a second-term presidential syndrome. We saw the same thing perhaps with Ronald Reagan and with Bill Clinton, as well, where people try Hail Mary diplomatic passes.

Now, in this case, I am worried about the future, however. First of all, the Iranians are going to see whether they can get a better deal now or after January, when the new president comes to office. And, also, by rolling back our red lines, by abandoning them, if you will, we have really -- from the Iranian perspective, we don't have credibility, nor does the United Nations, because we're talking about basically forfeiting three U.N. Security Council resolutions which were unanimous or near unanimous.

MARGARET WARNER: You are talking about the sanctions.

MICHAEL RUBIN: I'm talking about the U.N. resolutions which called on Iran to cease uranium enrichment immediately.

MARGARET WARNER: Trudy, do you agree this is a big shift, a clear shift?

TRUDY RUBIN: I think it is a clear shift, but I think one has to remember that the Europeans have put forward a proposal, which is the sweetener that apparently is interesting the Iranians, where there would be a six-week freeze for freeze. We would freeze further sanctions along with the Security Council and they would freeze the building of any more centrifuges to enrich uranium.

This is a face-saver for all involved. I agree with Michael that I think this is a Hail Mary pass by the Bush administration, trying to get diplomacy moving. And I think one of the reasons they are doing it is because there's all this speculation of a possible war, which the administration and our military knows would be terrible for the region, for us, and for our troops in Iraq.

And they also see signs that the Iranians, around the supreme leader, who makes foreign policy in the final analysis, are interested in such a deal. I also think, however, that there's a great chance that the Iranians will wait until the next administration, just as they waited to return hostages under Ronald Reagan, even though Jimmy Carter tried very hard to get them back.

Political winds change, allow deal

MARGARET WARNER: Well, let me ask both of you, starting with you, Michael, I mean, this freeze-freeze idea, which essentially is both sides freeze their current hostilities, the administration could have -- this has been in the air for a year. Why now?

MICHAEL RUBIN: This has been in the air for a year.

The debate in the United States hasn't been whether to have a deal with Iran or not. It's been when to deal, when to negotiate from a position of strength. The Iranian economy is lousy right now. According to Iran's own press, housing prices have gone up 150 percent in the last year. There's blackouts and energy shortages in Tehran. Foodstuff inflation is up 50 percent.

The Iranians are under tremendous pressure. And perhaps they did crack. But perhaps they are also just trying to stall and relieve the pressure. Sometimes, the process is more important than the deal.

MARGARET WARNER: So, your view is, the Iranians are actually under more pressure and you think the U.S. is caving here?

MICHAEL RUBIN: Well, I do think that the United States isn't going for the best deal it could get at this point in time.

MARGARET WARNER: Trudy.

TRUDY RUBIN: But I think there is another point here.

When this deal was proposed before, it was President Ahmadinejad of Iran who shot it down bluntly. Now there seems to be a dispute within the Iranian governing structure, which is very complex. And top figures around the supreme leader have talked in favor of this deal.

So, we have a real interesting back and forth going on inside Iran, and it seems that they are more interested in moving forward now, for many reasons, than before.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the -- meanwhile, the White House and the State Department spokespeople this week insisted this is a one-time only deal. Burns is going to that meeting to see if the Iranians will take the incentives. Otherwise, they are going for more sanctions.

I mean, will the U.S. be able to limit it?

MARGARET WARNER: I'm sorry. Let me go to Michael first, Trudy.

MICHAEL RUBIN: No, I don't think. And remember that this is the same rhetoric that occurred when Bill Burns first started meeting with the Libyans. There is a pattern here. And it seems that something deeper is in the air.

Plus, when you look at the Iranian press, they're talking repeatedly, Rassam Jani, people in the supreme leader's office, about U.N. Resolution 598, which ended the Iran-Iraq War when Khomeini, the revolutionary leader of Iran, said that it was like drinking poison, but it was the right thing to do for the Iranian nation.

If you do the criminology on Iran, something is afoot.

MARGARET WARNER: So Trudy, do a little criminology now also on this other intriguing thing that has been dangled out there by unnamed U.S. officials and the Iranian foreign minister, that the U.S. may open a diplomatic -- quote -- "interests section" in Tehran for the first time in, what, 30 -- nearly 30 years.

TRUDY RUBIN: I think this is extremely interesting on both sides, because, on the U.S. side, despite all the talk of wanting to have regime change, this would be an interests section. It would mainly issue visas. It would enable more Iranians to come here.

We don't know if it would enable more Americans to go there. But it is really an interesting position that the U.S. could have taken before, and hasn't done so. On the Iranian side, they have always claimed that having Americans there might be a vehicle for trying to do spying or other nefarious activities.

And now they seem willing, even eager, to have an interests section. So, there is a very interesting minuet going on. And, again, the push for it is mainly coming out of the supreme leader's office. So, it does make one wonder if he has taken the decision to move forward, despite the fact that Ahmadinejad might not have wanted to do so.

Changes helping presidential race?

MARGARET WARNER: All right, and I have to move forward.

Let me ask you a brief final question, Trudy, first to you, and then to you, Michael.

What do you think -- you take these two shifts, whatever you want to call them, moves this week on these two issues. What does it say, more broadly, about the Bush foreign policy?

And I will throw to you the quote from Joe Biden, Democratic chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, that the administration is finally -- quote -- "facing reality."

TRUDY RUBIN: I think this is likely to help, actually, the campaign of Senator Obama, because it seems to be shifting more to him, even though in reality, it might be more complicated.

I think it is a last-ditch effort at a legacy on the Iranian side for the Bush administration. On the Iraqi side, they didn't intend it to happen this way.

MARGARET WARNER: More broadly, what does it say?

MICHAEL RUBIN: The Bush administration has been playing ping-pong with its foreign policy, one man ping-pong, if you will. I actually think it will be quite negative, because, no matter what position the Bush administration takes or any future administration, people on both sides of the issue are going to wonder whether the U.S.' word is lasting and whether they should commit to the U.S. position and ally themselves with us.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Michael Rubin, Trudy Rubin, thank you both.