Gary Sick on Iran and the Hawk-Realist Power Balance

Gary Sick, an acute observer of U.S.-Iranian relations for more than three decades who served on the National Security Council staff under president Ford, Carter and Reagan and now teaches at Columbia University, wrote a brief comment today on the latest developments in U.S. Iran policy and what it says about the balance of power between hawks and realists within the Bush administration. His essay, which refers to John Bolton’s op-ed, “Israel, Iran and the Bomb, published Monday on the opinion pages of the ever-hawkish ‘Wall Street Journal,’ is reproduced with the author’s permission. (Incidentally, I had the opportunity to talk briefly with former Amb. James Dobbins, who dealt extensively with Iranian diplomats over Afghanistan during and after the ouster of the Taliban and who has been one of the most outspoken and influential voices in the foreign-policy community here to urge direct engagement with Tehran on a whole range of issues. He called the decision to send Undersecretary of State for Policy William Burns to Geneva to join his counterparts from the EU-3, Russia, and China in talks with Iran Saturday a “remarkable” and a “dramatic departure” from previous U.S. policy.)

As usual, John Bolton is absolutely right. His policy prescriptions may be reckless to the point of foolishness (“When in doubt, bomb!”), but his understanding of what is happening in Washington policy (as outlined in his op-ed in the Wall Street Journal yesterday) is unerringly accurate.

While much of the world was hyper-ventilating over the possibility that the United States (and maybe Israel) were getting ready to launch a new war against Iran, Bolton was looking at the realities and concluding that far from bombing the US was preparing to do a deal with Iran. He had noticed that over the past two years the US had completely reversed its position opposing European talks with Iran.

First, the US indicated that it would participate if the negotiations showed progress. Then, when they didn’t, we went further and actively participated in negotiating a new and more attractive offer of incentives to Iran. Bolton noticed that when that package was delivered to Tehran by Xavier Solana, the signature of one Condoleeza Rice was there, along with representatives of the other five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany.

He had probably also noticed Secretary Rice’s suggestion of possibly opening a US interests section in Tehran — the first step toward reestablishing diplomatic relations. And he didn’t overlook the softening of rhetoric in Under Secretary Wm Burn’s recent testimony to the Congress about Iran.

Now, just one day after Bolton’s cry of alarm that the US is going soft on Iran, we learn that the same Bill Burns will participate directly in the talks that are going to be held on Saturday in Geneva with the chief Iranian negotiator on the nuclear file. Bolton’s worst suspicions seem to be confirmed.

Unlike many observers and commentators, Bolton has been looking, not at what the US administration says, but what it does. Ever since the congressional elections of 2006, the US has been in the process of a fundamental change in its policy on a number of key issues: the Arab-Israel dispute, the North Korean nuclear issue, and Iran. Since the administration proclaims loudly that its policies have not changed, and since the tough rhetoric of the past dominates the discussion, it is easy to overlook what is actually going on.

Bolton no doubt noticed that Rumsfeld is gone and replaced with Robert Gates, a very different sort of secretary of Defense. He will have observed that the worst of the neocons (including himself) are now writing books and spending more time with families and friends, cheer-leading for more war by writing op-eds from the outside rather than pursuing their strategies in policy meetings in the White House.

He will have seen the gradual shift of the policy center of gravity from Dick Cheney to Rice and Gates. He will have been listening when the Chairman of the JCS and others have said as clearly as they realistically can that the military option, though never renounced as a theoretical possibility, is the least attractive option available to us and in fact is close to impossible given our over-stretch in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In other words, Bolton, as someone whose policies (in my view) are certifiably insane, recognizes real pragmatism and moderation in Washington when he sees it. And he does not like what he sees in this lame duck administration.

Over the past two or three years, we have been treated to one sensational threat after another about the likelihood of imminent war with Iran. All of these alarms and predictions have one thing in common: they never happened. Perhaps it is time for us to join Bolton in looking at the real indicators. When Bolton quits writing his jeremiads or when he begins to express satisfaction with the direction of US policy, that is when we should start to get worried.

With a few quibbles here and there, I think Dr. Sick gets it exactly right.

Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.



  1. It’s a little late in the history of the Iraq War and our relations with Iran to claim there is a change in US policy worthy of such praise. Mr. Bolton seems to be oblivious regarding prior US policy to both countries, the most confusing having been the supply or arms to both countries during the 8 year Iraq-Iran War. Even Israel was the funnel for US weapons to Iran. I think instead of taking on a bellicose stance, some consideration by the next president, Obama, should be given to straightening out this history, so that we take a realistic position with both countries. Why does Iran want to be a nuclear power, if that is what’s really going on? Or is it some sort of fable like the doctored photos of its recent launching of missles? I am always suspicious of a minor power like Iran rattling the saber, because more often than not it is a diversion from either a weak economy or unsettled politics within the country. How can there be a single policy for Iraq, when, indeed, there are almost three separate countries in that one border? It is not enough to praise US diplomatic engagement with both countries, when the real concern is what are we trying to accomplish with that diplomacy.

  2. Thanks, Jim, that was interesting.

    “I am always suspicious of a minor power like Iran rattling the saber, because more often than not it is a diversion from either a weak economy or unsettled politics within the country.”

    Mainly I agree, Konrad, but why use the conventional wisdom here? Why not take the actual scenario? Iraq was on the Axis of Evil list, so is Iran. There are constant war drums concerning a war with Iran since Iraq-“mission-accomplished” from the US and Israel, sometimes slightly louder sometimes softer but always regaining momentum .

    Just think of the rituals of two boxers before a fight. From that perspective it looks like something that has to be expected without resorting to “weak economy” or “unsettling politics”.

  3. As usual,John Bolton has missed the wood for the trees. The US has, up till now, played the role of a “bad cop” in the international arena and has been successfully isolated Iran from the majority of the OECD countries. The most glaring recent example of this is the French oil company Total withdrawing from the development of Iran’s South Pars gas field, and both France and the UK running down their trade ties with Iran with Germany and Italy to follow. International sanctions, the financial restrictions in particular, imposed by America, have succeeded in deterring business with Iran and forced banks in the European Union countries to cut down or halt dealings with Iran. So what is a better time to metamorphose into the role of a “good cop” than now? With the field now wide open, it is the time for the US business in general and oil companies in particular a free of competition entry into Iran. If Israel ever thought that America will sacrifice their future control over energy security, now is the time for them to get wise.

    The only cloud in the US horizon is taht Iran’s trade relation moving from the US and Europe towards China, UAE and Russia. In fact, the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) and Russia’s giant gas company Gazprom have signed an agreement for the development of Iran’s oil and gas fields only this week. Did America wait a bit too long to reverse its role vis-à-vis Iran? We can only wait and see.

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