Helman: Is Bush’s Engagement with Iran Hurting McCain, Helping Obama?

Ambassador Gerald B. Helman writes, in a guest op-ed for IC:

The decision by the Administration to send William Burns, the State Department’s third ranking official and a career diplomat, to participate in the five power talks with Iran over its nuclear activities, certainly invites speculation as to how far the Administration has changed its policies regarding Iran.

The White House’s explanation–that Burns will be there to state clearly the Administration’s known position that the US will negotiate with Iran only when it stops its nuclear enrichment activities—is wholly unpersuasive. No one at the table, certainly not the Iranians, needs reminding. Nor is there good evidence that the US has decided to embark on a major new substantive initiative. What at this point it may be fair to say is that the US (and perhaps Iran, as well) has decided to see whether a new process of diplomacy can be established that would permit more detailed substantive exchanges between the US and Iran covering nuclear enrichment matters as well as steps that might over time “normalize” relations between the US and Iran

As a model, consider the ongoing six-power talks with North Korea. It is a model of which the Administration is very well aware, a model that has led to one of this Administration’s few genuinely significant foreign policy achievements.

Several years ago, President Bush defied criticism from both left and right. He rejected direct bilateral negotiations with North Korea over its nuclear weapons activities. Instead, he authorized six power talks that included China, Russia, Japan and South Korea, and put a remarkably skilled career diplomat, Christopher Hill, in charge of the US effort. This new diplomatic process was not undertaken by the participants for the pleasure of sitting around a table to talk to one another. Instead it served to facilitate “multiple bilaterals,” a process and dynamic with which experienced diplomats are well aware and welcome because it provides a cover and process within which otherwise hostile countries can negotiate. Under the skillful management of Hill and his counterparts, what has in fact happened through multiple bilateral talks between the US/ North Korea, US/China and China/North Korea is agreement by North Korea to disable its nuclear infrastructure and by the US to grant significant concessions to North Korea, such as removing it from the US’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. Moreover, the deal having been made within the six-power forum will make it that much more difficult for North Korea to cheat or walk away from it. It has to answer to the other five.

Apply this model now to the Iranian context which involves serious issues not dissimilar to those of North Korea and with an existing forum consisting of Iran and major non-Middle Eastern powers, with the US heretofore sitting in the anteroom. Those issues, beginning with Iran’s nuclear enrichment program and moving on to all of the others that have for decades kept Iran in an international quarantine and the US at sword point, may finally have found a forum and process within which some of these matters can be addressed through multiple bilaterals within a multilateral context.

That is not to say that decisions have been made regarding substantive concessions. It is to say, instead, that all of the participants are experienced diplomats. Burns’ participation certainly was notified and “cleared” in advance at the highest levels, so there would be no surprises. It may all fall apart. Nevertheless, everyone is aware that they may well be embarking on something of real consequence and are prepared to give it a try.

The decision to send Burns certainly was made by President Bush, who certainly is well aware of the controversy it will arouse domestically from his own partisans and is also well aware of the thus-far successful North Korean model. He also would know that his decision undercuts John McCain’s position on Iran and his claim to superior experience, and validates Barack Obama’s judgment favoring the negotiating track. The President must also know that the multilateral process will take time to unfold and any useful results might not be realized until after his term in office. So, for a change, cheers for George Bush.

Gerald B. Helman “was United States Ambassador to the European Office of the United Nations from 1979 through 1981.”