Remember when Barack Obama said that he was willing to meet unconditionally with foreign leaders we don't get along with, including Iran? In fact, even his pledge to negotiate with them at any level was lambasted. He was called an appeaser and worse, and the right has been howling ever since then about it. Of course the policy of the Bush administration has been never to negotiate with governments it considers part of the 'axis of evil' or otherwise involved in 'sponsoring terrorism.' Even John McCain got into the act, refusing to meet with Palestinians during his last trip to the middle east (incidentally, Barack Obama has accepted an invitation to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, as well as Israeli President Ohlmert when he goes to the middle east next month.)
Of course earlier this year we saw the Bush administration reverse themselves and negotiate directly with the North Koreans. But the biggest and most obvious foreign bogeyman-- Iran-- they have always publically refused to negotiate with.
So it was suprising today to see the Bush administration do a 180 degree reversal today and announce that Undersecretary of State William Burns will meet with Iranian diplomat Saeed Jalili this week during negotiations between Iran and diplomats from the European Union.
This is huge, and it is long overdue. It is not of course the kind of Presidential level talk that Obama has been criticized for saying he would pursue, and the scope of the discussion-- Iran's nuclear program-- is limited, but it nevertheless marks the first time in several years of saber rattling that the U.S. and Iran have had any kind of direct talks.
It is overdue because whether we like it or not, Iran represents a significant player in a part of the world that is both vital to the U.S. and where we have now gotten a significant portion of our military bogged down in (how much of our problems in Iraq the past five years have been due to Iran is debatable, but it is foolish to think that there is no connection.) Iran has much more influence over the Maliki government than we do (starting with the fact that much of the Iraqi military is composed of former members of the Iranian backed Badr brigade.) Iran also has a lot of influence over Hezbollah and other groups that whether we like it or not have significant power bases and ability to cause trouble around the middle east. And then there is that nuclear program and the obvious likelihood of a confrontation sooner or later between Iran and Israel. In other words, Iran is just too important to ignore. We may not like them, but then during the Cold War we didn't like the Soviet Union either. But like them or not, we had to deal with them.
The Bush administration is also clearly coming to the realization that in its waning days, with the costly mistake of Iraq only now settling down after five years of brutal war while the country we took our eye off of to go into Iraq, Afghanistan, is now heating up, any plans that they had to invade and occupy Iran (and we know that it was on their long term agenda) will have to be thrown away. Right now they have neither the military force needed nor the support of the American people for adding a long term military war and occupation of Iran to what is currently going on in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their about face and willingness to negotiate is ample proof that they realize this.
It also vindicates Obama's position on negotiations with foreign adversaries, and leaves conservatives (especially the variety of neocon who can think of no other way to engage a country like Iran than militarily) blustering and red in the face. I'm not saying that the deployment of military force is never required (I've always supported the Afghan war and believe that we must leave Iraq as soon as possible so that we can do what we should have done half a decade ago and finish the job there) but clearly diplomacy has its place. Even the Bush administration, which early on used terms like 'with us or against us' and 'coalition of the willing' to excuse its unwillingness to rely on diplomacy, has realized that the world is not always such a simple and easily managed place.
I know, I know. Someone will undoubtedly point out that 1) this isn't a Presidential level meeting, and 2) that Ahmadinejad is still a nut who makes all kinds of outrageous rhetoric. My answers are 1) this kind of reversal by the Bush administation is nonetheless hugely significant and could well pave the way for a Presidential level meeting eventually-- by whoever is President; and 2) Ahmadinejad is a not particularly popular politician who makes outrageous statements largely for domestic consumption. But he will be gone next Iranian election (which I believe is next year) and replaced as the 'face of Iran' by another politician. The guys who call the real shots in Iran-- a council of mullahs led by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei-- are in effect being engaged at just as high a level by diplomatic talks as they would by Presidential talks.
Besides, how is Ahmadinejad's threat to destroy Israel any more outrageous than Bush's declaration of the 'axis of evil' followed by his actual attack on one member of that group-- Iraq? As a North Korean diplomat candidly said a year after that speech, "Your President called us a member of the axis of evil....of course we have a nuclear program" Rhetoric like that often spurs countries to take more, not less action (and the threat from America may be part of Iran's nuclear motivation). So maybe it is time for both sides to tone down the rhetoric and shake hands. This meeting is long, long overdue.