Today the media is filled with stories that suggest a deal can be reached with Iran regarding Lebanon, Iraq and possibly even its nuclear program. Are these truly portents of a change in direction in the Middle East, and a move away from a war first strategy by the Bush administration in its dealings with Iran? Time will tell, but for now, lets take a gander at what I interpret as good news: that negotiations and diplomacy are on the front burner at the moment, and wars and rumors of war seemingly are on the back burner.

First up, this report in today’s Washington Post regarding King Abdullah’s meeting Iranian President Ahmadinejad since the Saudis diplomatic relations with Iran soured in 2005:

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Following their first official talks in Saudi Arabia, the Iranian and Saudi leaders on Saturday pledged to fight the spread of sectarian strife in the Middle East, which they said was the biggest danger facing the region.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and King Abdullah also stressed the importance of maintaining Palestinian unity and bringing security to Iraq, the official Saudi Press Agency said.

The agency quoted Ahmadinejad as saying he supported Saudi efforts to calm the situation in Lebanon and end its political crisis. Iran supports Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah group, which is trying to topple the U.S.- and Saudi-backed government. […]

Saudi and Iranian analysts said cooperation will benefit both countries, as well as the whole region. Shiite-majority Iran and Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia are on different sides of the two conflicts that are threatening to ignite the Middle East _ Iraq and Lebanon _ and the Saudis have expressed concerns over Iran’s nuclear program.

Dawood al-Shirian, a Saudi analyst, said the kingdom would not have agreed to receive Ahmadinejad “if it didn’t know that the visit would add to its political achievements.”

This is the best possible outcome of yesterday’s meeting. Far from the usual noncomittal “joint statement” often issued by parties in conflict regarding their “frank discussions” (diplomatic code for no agreement or movement on the issues discussed), we actually have both parties dedicating themselves to a reduction of Sunni/Shi’a tensions across the Middle East. Whoever is responsible for this achievement, which is a vital first step in promoting a diplomatic solution to the crisis — Secretary Rice, elements of the Saudi government, Ahmadinejad and/or Iranian leader Ayatollah Khamenei, or some combination of the above — my hat is off to them. If the Saudis and Iran are willing to bury the hatchet to forestall a sectarian war across the region, it will be hard for Presiudent Bush or Vice President Cheney to push for any military action until all the diplomatic avenues have been exhausted.

But that isn’t the only good news …


Xinhua is reporting that Iran is proposing direct negotiations, without any “preconditions,” with the Five permanent members of the Security council (which includes the United States) plus Germany:

TEHRAN, March 4 (Xinhua) — Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad-Ali Hosseini said on Sunday that Iran was ready to hold talks with five UN Security Council members plus Germany on its nuclear issue with no preconditions.

Hosseini made the remarks when answering a question at his weekly press conference on whether an upcoming security meeting in Baghdad would open doors to negotiations, the official IRNA news agency reported. […]

“The venue is not the question that we lay emphasis on Baghdad meeting,” he said, adding that “we are ready to negotiate with …the permanent members of the UN Security Council including China, Russia, France, Britain, the U.S. plus Germany without any preconditions.”

Note the source of the report: China. The Chinese clearly have an interest in pushing these negotiations in light of their recent investment in Iran’s oil industry, and their contracts for the future delivery of oil and gas from Iran. For that reason, they (and the Russians as well) will continue to stall any resolution on further sanctions with respect to Iran’s nuclear program proposed by the United States unless the Bush administration agrees to these talks. As evidence for this view, note the following from the Xinhua story:

A senior U.S. official said in Washington on Saturday that major powers failed to settle all their differences over a second UN sanctions resolution against Iran for its nuclear activities.

“There is still some work to be done on a few outstanding issues, but all parties remain committed to a second resolution in the near future,” State Department spokesman Kurtis Cooper said in a statement after U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns and his counterparts from China, Russia, France, Britain and Germany held discussions by phone.

“They had a good discussion in keeping with the positive atmosphere of their conversations” in recent days, Cooper said.

The six countries have been negotiating over a new Security Council resolution that will exert more diplomatic pressure on Iran’s nuclear program.

The Security Council members will continue to fail to “settle all their differences” so long as the US refuses to meet with Iran to resolve the issue of Iran’s nuclear program through direct negotiations. There will be no tougher sanctions resolution unless the talks proposed by Iran, and tacitly endorsed by China (and probably Russia as well) commence with US participation.

Oddly enough, it is possible that this is the ultimate goal of the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, difficult as that may be for many of us to believe. For evidence to support this counterintuitive proposition, you need look no further than this article appearing in an Australian newspaper this weekend, The Age which claims that Rice is driving American policy toward Iran at the moment, to the dismay of Vice President Cheney and the remaining neocons in his office and at the Pentagon:

While US Vice-President Dick Cheney was in Australia talking tough on Iraq, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who was in the Middle East, was talking diplomacy, the sort of diplomacy that Cheney has long considered the preserve of spineless Democrats and cut-and-run appeasers. […]

…So surprising was Rice’s sudden announcement of the Administration’s support for an international conference on Iraq that would include both Syria and Iran, that Robert Byrd, the chairman of the Senate appropriations committee couldn’t believe what he was hearing and asked Rice his pre-prepared first question anyway: When would the Administration finally accept the need for a regional conference to deal with the Iraq “quagmire”?

The proposed conference was technically the work of the Iraqi Government, which has issued invitations to a planning conference in Baghdad on March 10.

But no one doubts that Rice was the architect of this major shift in policy, a shift that only two weeks ago President George Bush had rejected out of hand, saying that there was no point in talking to Syria and Iran because both countries “knew what they had to do”, which was to stop fomenting violence in Iraq. […]

First on the proposed six-party agreement on North Korea’s nuclear program and now with this new commitment to international diplomacy, Rice has bypassed Cheney to win Bush’s support. […]

… [Rice] has now opened the door to direct talks with Iran and Syria some time in the future, and that door won’t now be closed unless the Syrians and Iranians close it. The conservative hawks who have been arguing that any negotiations with Syria and Iran would be futile, even counterproductive, are critics of Rice and her performance as Secretary of State. Most of them are Cheney supporters. Some have been urging military strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities and they will be less than happy with the fact that Rice will now inevitably be a key player on Iraq. And Iran for that matter. […]

The real question now is whether Iraq’s neighbours and the international community will recognise the fact that the Bush Administration is essentially asking for help on Iraq and that both Bush and Rice now accept that success there is not possible without international support. The hope must be that when that international conference gets under way in less than two months’ time, Iraq’s neighbours as well as Britain, France, Russia and China, come prepared to offer that help, no matter what they may feel about the Administration’s past arrogance and triumphalism.

My reading of the tea leaves is that, indeed, the Saudis and the Chinese are very motivated to head off an attack on Iran, and are willing to take whatever steps are necessary, even if that means helping Bush find a graceful way out of Iraq. And that is a very good sign, in my opinion.

I think that is precisely the plan Rice is pushing at the moment. The question remains, however, will George Bush surrender his heroic vision of himself as a “War President” and “Commander-in-Chief” to accept the less certain laurels of diplomacy, where he is guaranteed not to have things all his own way in whatever negotiations ensue. Is he truly willing to listen to the realists in his administration, Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, or will he be seduced again by the siren song of war promoted by his powerful Vice President? Only time will tell.

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