Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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July 17, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

WHAT'S GOING ON WITH IRAN?....Am I off base, or is it sort of weird that there's been so little followup to the news that the Bush administration plans to open an "interests section" in Tehran? None of the big U.S. newspapers has so much as mentioned this story yet, which either means they don't think it's a big deal (unlikely) or that not a single one of them has been able to confirm the original Guardian report (also unlikely). Over at The Corner, where I figured they'd be going ballistic, the news has been met with nothing more than a shrug.

Now, sure, an interests section is not an embassy (we already have one in Cuba, for example), but this would still be a pretty stunning turnaround, wouldn't it? Especially since the rapprochement appears to be mutual. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has indicated he's open to a U.S. proposal and an Iranian spokesman later confirmed that Iran is open to direct talks. How cordial! So why the radio silence?

At the very least, shouldn't the talking heads be talking about the political implications of this news? Barack Obama favors direct talks with Iran and John McCain doesn't, and now here comes George Bush apparently clearing the deck for direct talks. So what does McCain do now? He'll tap dance a bit, of course, claiming that Bush is not doing precisely what Obama proposed (which is true), but he's certainly moving in that direction. Doesn't this cut McCain's legs out from under him? Doesn't it make Obama look more prescient and presidential? Shouldn't this at a minimum be a fascinating topic for fact-free cable news speculation and talk radio bloviation? I think so!

Kevin Drum 5:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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Comments

U.S. talking to Iran? How is this nearly as important as rehashing the Chandra Levy case?

Posted by: DCBob on July 17, 2008 at 5:28 PM | PERMALINK

What's Going On with Iran?

Maybe Bush needs to do some reverse saber-rattling for a change to get oil prices to cool out. Just a thought.

Posted by: Doc at the Radar Station on July 17, 2008 at 5:29 PM | PERMALINK

Hannity and Colmes, of all people, devoted a segment to it last night, with Colmes arguing that Bush was coming around to Obama's position and Hannity saying that this was a terrible idea.

Posted by: Dilan Esper on July 17, 2008 at 5:36 PM | PERMALINK

sort of weird that there's been so little followup to the news that the Bush administration plans to open an "interests section" in Tehran

The burial of two Israeli soldiers has dominated today's American headlines.

Posted by: Brojo on July 17, 2008 at 5:37 PM | PERMALINK

Or it let's Bush do the flip flop for McCain. McCain just shrugs and says "Hey he's the CinC, so of course he knows best. I'll just follow his lead." Voila! Another winning campaign issue for Obama vanishes.

Posted by: Tentakles on July 17, 2008 at 5:39 PM | PERMALINK

In the short term pundit tv talk it does help Obama, but in the long run when we have re-established relations with Iran - the Bush Admin has effectively taken away one of Obama's talking points for the election. What's he going to say - I was for what Bush ended up doing? Sure he can argue Bush came around to what he was advocating, but does that make it better? It's still something the Republicans did. Not the Democrats.

Posted by: Julene on July 17, 2008 at 5:43 PM | PERMALINK

Call Pelosi @1-202-225-0100 DEMAND IMPEACHMENT.

Posted by: Mike Meyer on July 17, 2008 at 5:50 PM | PERMALINK

the MSM is just too busy covering our upcoming election. because we NEED round the clock coverage of the polling horse race, the fundraising horse race, "flip-flopping", attacks via surrogates, and all the other peripheral garbage.

I echo Brojo: the only things that seem to interrupt this junk is bloodshed (or sex). Since nobody is getting laid and nothing here bleeds, this story doesn't lead.

As for conservative outrage, this could be a "nixon goes to china" type moment, except toned down. GWB can do this since he's earned his terror-fighting cred with this crowd. If Clinton (or BHO) had taken these steps, I'm sure they've hollered plenty.

Posted by: cjdquest on July 17, 2008 at 5:51 PM | PERMALINK

None of the big U.S. newspapers has so much as mentioned this story yet, which either means they don't think it's a big deal (unlikely) or that not a single one of them has been able to confirm the original Guardian report (also unlikely). Over at The Corner, where I figured they'd be going ballistic, the news has been met with nothing more than a shrug.

They're waiting for new talking points. Why bother distinguishing between them?
.

Posted by: Grand Moff Texan on July 17, 2008 at 5:53 PM | PERMALINK

Bush is "Desperately Seeking Legacy."
Same bullshit that Clinton went through during his last six months - they all try to do something significant in the Middle East, before they're out.

And then Afghanistan and Pakistan are about to blow up big ... someone is getting worried.

Posted by: SteinL on July 17, 2008 at 5:57 PM | PERMALINK

If this is indeed true, it will highlight Obama's foresight. He has been saying all along that it is important to talk with Iran. Same goes with withdrawl from Iraq. If Pentagon is indeed planning to reduce troops and follows up on that line of thought, shows that Obama had the right idea. Obama's campaign should be able to highlight his ability to be ahead of competition (Bush and his loyal follower, McCain). Sure McCain will change his tune, but only the hardcore right wing nuts will believe that.

Before you accuse me of being madly infatuated with Obama, know that I am pissed off at Obama for his FISA flip-flop and showing my disappointment in a small way (no campaign contributions; Obama can get his contributions from the right wing nuts he chose to please with his flip-flop on an important issue).

That said, credit to Obama where it is deserved and a reminder that he is indeed a refreshing change from Bush/McCain.

Posted by: rational on July 17, 2008 at 6:08 PM | PERMALINK

Listen, I'm going to explain this one more time: If Republicans do it, it's OK. If Democrats do it, it's treason.

Is it clear now?

Posted by: Speed on July 17, 2008 at 6:14 PM | PERMALINK

"Over at The Corner, where I figured they'd be going ballistic, the news has been met with nothing more than a shrug."

That's what you get for believing your own cartoonish caricatures.

Posted by: q on July 17, 2008 at 6:25 PM | PERMALINK

Just what is an interests section? Is it some sort of embassy-on-training wheels. Of course Bush (or whomever) could poison the waters by staffing it with spies.

Posted by: bigTom on July 17, 2008 at 6:32 PM | PERMALINK

I am currently in Taiwan, this story made the front page of the Taiwan Times. I guess it it just the US media that is ignoring it.

I wonder why that is?

The Taiwan Times does a much better job reporting on US political events than any paper I have seen in the US.

Posted by: TT on July 17, 2008 at 6:52 PM | PERMALINK

The missing piece in this puzzle is internal Iranian politics, almost certainly a more significant factor than what the American Presidential candidates are saying.

Iran's international position would be stronger were it not laboring under Western economic sanctions, but even more important must be the Iranian regime's need to generate enough economic growth to keep its large and youthful population content enough to stay away from political activism. This would be much easier if Iran could trade products other than oil like a normal country.

We should also consider the possibility that the Iranian consensus in favor of developing the capacity to "go nuclear" may be stronger in Western imaginations than it is in the Iranian government. Nuclear weapons are expensive to develop, a hassle to maintain. There isn't really anything one can do with them after developing them; the Iranians must have observed how Pakistan's nuclear program, in which the Pakistanis took such pride, hasn't kept that country from being overwhelmed with problems its nuclear program cannot address. The only threat an Iranian nuclear arsenal could conceivably deter -- an attack from the United States -- would not be a threat if the Americans knew the Iranians had given up on the idea of acquiring a nuclear arsenal.

This isn't to say the Iranian government has decided on a change of course. It probably hasn't, and there are doubtless a lot of bunga-bungas in the clerical establishment who cannot imagine a world in which Iran is not hostile to the Shah's old patron. But Iran does have reasons to explore where a change of course might lead. This is the time for it, really -- Iran's oil will not last forever, and if it doesn't have the foundations for a productive economy firmly laid by the time its oil exports start to diminish its government will be in a very difficult position. A settlement of its differences with American and Europe would be useful for us; it is necessary for them.

Posted by: Zathras on July 17, 2008 at 6:59 PM | PERMALINK

Anonymous Obama-basher wrote: "Just today, obama announced plans for a hitler style youth program just like the nazis only even a larger scale."

You are a sniveling coward.

Posted by: SecularAnimist on July 17, 2008 at 7:04 PM | PERMALINK

If Bush actually does this, then McCain will say, "See, Obama=Bush, Vote for me if you don't like Bush!" That is, after all, the new McCain theme.

Posted by: Cap and Gown on July 17, 2008 at 7:04 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin,
"Am I off base, or is it sort of weird that there's been so little followup to the news that the Bush administration plans to open an "interests section" in Tehran? ......Doesn't this cut McCain's legs out from under him? Doesn't it make Obama look more prescient and presidential?"

To me, your second set of questions answers the first.

Not so much that the entire mainstream media is pro-Bush, anti-Obama as that the entire mainstream media is trying to hide just how irrationally our country has been run the past 8 years because the media itself is far too implicated in that process. If their hands were a bit cleaner (and if they weren't so threatened by technological progress), they might go for the media as savior of democracy approach like during Watergate.

BTW, more than a legacy thing, I think this is about eliminating the threat-of-war premium on the oil price. Oddly enough, because they have run their own economy so impressively poorly, the most effective way to hurt the anti-Western factions that run Iran is to create a feeling of peace and reduce their income from petroleum exports.
$80 or $90 oil would still work fine for most of the other big oil exporters, but it could create serious havoc in Iran. Because their economy is even more poorly run than ours has been and even with the extra huge oil bonus they are barely keeping it afloat.

Posted by: Jessica on July 17, 2008 at 7:09 PM | PERMALINK

Am I off base, or is it sort of weird that there's been so little followup to the news that the Bush administration plans to open an "interests section" in Tehran?

Probably lots of attempts to confirm that now, and I expect there's not much to be had. The only thing solid appears to be Burn's appearance at talks in Geneva.

But it makes sense. Burns appears to have the chops, and his very recent statements to the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee makes a case for direct engagement.

I expect the "interests section" isn't a done deal--probably more of a trial balloon. The administration will undoubtedly wait and gauge reactions and see what happens in Geneva before making a commitment.


p.s. And yeah, Bolton's mustache is surely on fire. Burn baby, burn.

Posted by: on July 17, 2008 at 8:17 PM | PERMALINK

sorry, that was me at 8:17 PM.

Posted by: has407 on July 17, 2008 at 8:22 PM | PERMALINK

If Iran had done something provocative, it'd be front page material. Easing tensions with Iran, lessening the probability that the US will bomb them under some premise, does not make neo-cons happy.

Listen to even the most liberal news outlet, like NPR. When it comes to this one issue, Middle East foreign policy, the liberal press is more hawkish than the average conservative.

Posted by: flubber on July 17, 2008 at 8:49 PM | PERMALINK

Is the White House is finally convinced that Iran has mastered uranium enrichment - until they did it was imperative to stop them achieving it, now that they have it is imperative to start negotiating with them. It the same story as North Korea only North Korea went the plutonium route where the difficult part is initiating the chain reaction while Iran went the uranium route where the difficult part is the enrichment process. Think Trinity & Fat Man v Little Boy. They dropped Little Boy without even conducting a live test. I know that Little Boy was big and heavy (about 4 tons) but eventually the US reduced the weight of a 40 kiloton gun type device to 243 pounds.

Nuclear ambiguity rools OK!

Posted by: blowback on July 17, 2008 at 9:33 PM | PERMALINK

For what it's worth, the NYTimes did give it one sentence.

Some administration officials have even discussed whether to post American officials in Iran without established diplomatic relations, as in Cuba, but have said a decision has not yet been made.
Posted by: veblen on July 17, 2008 at 10:14 PM | PERMALINK

blowback: Is the White House is finally convinced that Iran has mastered uranium enrichment...

Iran's uranium enrichment capability has been a demonstrable fact for some time--the IAEA has been watching them do it for years--and no one (and certainly not the White House) needs convincing of that. The only questions are how fast they can ramp up, the level to which they intend to enrich, and what they intend to do with the result.

Posted by: has407 on July 17, 2008 at 10:41 PM | PERMALINK

Last time I checked, all the neocons except Cheney were out of the administration, including Bolton, who now regularly criticizes current policy towards Iran and NK. In fact, I think they all left (or were asked to leave) exactly because of this policy.

And I think Zathras nailed it: the real difference here isn't U.S. policy, it's Iranian policy. For whatever reason, Khamenei seems to think it's a good idea to work on better relations with the U.S., at least for now.

Posted by: kwo on July 17, 2008 at 11:27 PM | PERMALINK

Comforting explanation: Bush realizes Obama will win and open negotiations, and wants to claim credit by this one small step.

Discomforting explanation: Bush expects Israel to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities, and wants to be able to say "Wasn't us!! We were improving relations!!"

Posted by: anoregonreader on July 18, 2008 at 1:58 PM | PERMALINK

Perhaps I'm just a cynical curmudgeon, but I can't help suspecting that the only reason Bush sends anyone to Iran on a "diplomatic mission" is for political cover when the hue and cry rises after he attacks THAT country.

Posted by: Cathexis on July 18, 2008 at 4:23 PM | PERMALINK
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