The hawks, neoconservatives, and Israeli hardliners are squealing, but the US and Iran are set to talk. The talks will begin October 1, among Iran and the P5 + 1, the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany.
Mohammed ElBaradei, the outgoing head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), was ebullient, even as he urged Iran to "engage substantively with the agency," saying:
"Addressing the concerns of the international community about Iran's future intentions is primarily a matter of confidence-building, which can only be achieved through dialogue. I therefore welcome the offer of the US to initiate a dialogue with Iran, without preconditions and on the basis of mutual respect."
That's exactly the right tone and message, and it underscores that President Obama is doing precisely what he campaigned on, namely, to open a dialogue with Iran. It's an effort that began with his comments on Iran during his inaugural address, his videotaped Nowruz message to Iran last winter, a pair of quiet messages to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's Leader, and Obama's careful and balanced response to the post-election crisis over the summer. Once started, the talks aren't likely to have a swift conclusion, but the very fact that they're taking place will make it impossible for hawks to argue successfully either for harsh, "crippling" sanctions on Iran or for a military attack.
That didn't stop Bibi Netanyahu, for one, from trying. Speaking to Israel's foreign affairs and defense committee today, the Israeli leader said:
"I believe that now is the time to start harsh sanctions against Iran -- if not now then when? These harsh sanctions can be effective. I believe that the international community can act effectively. The Iranian regime is weak, the Iranian people would not rally around the regime if they felt for the first time that there was a danger to their regime -- and this would be a new situation."
Netanyahu's belief in sanctions, harsh measures, and regime change was echoed by John Hannah, the former top aide to Vice President Cheney, who wrote an op-ed criticizing Obama for taking regime change off the table in dealing with Iran. Hannah utterly ignored the fact that eight years of anti-Iran, pro-regime change bombast from the Bush-Cheney administration did nothing but strengthen Iran's hawks, while Obama's softer, dialogue-centered approach to Iran helped boost the power of the reformists and their allies in Iranian politics. Indeed, it was precisely Obama's less belligerent tone that confused the Iranian hardliners, emboldened the liberals, reformists and pragmatists in Iran, and therefore did more to create the conditions for "regime change" than anything that Bush, Cheney, and Hannah did.
Nevertheless, here's Hannah:
"It is ironic, of course, that just as the Obama administration seemed prepared to write off regime change forever, the Iranian people have made it a distinct possibility. It would be tragic indeed if the United States took steps to bolster the staying power of Iran's dictatorship at precisely the moment when so many Iranians appear prepared to risk everything to be rid of it. It would also seem strategically shortsighted to risk throwing this regime a lifeline."
Hannah adds that whatever happens in the talks, Obama had better be careful not to undermine the possibility that the regime might collapse. "However engagement now unfolds, Obama should do nothing to undermine this historic opportunity."
"The Iranian response is a bad joke. It makes a complete mockery of the situation."
And the churlish Washington Post, in an editorial written before the US agreed to start talks with Iran, huffed that Iran's offer to talk was a "non-response" and complained that so far Obama has had no results:
"President Obama's offer of direct diplomacy evidently has produced no change in the stance taken by Iran during the George W. Bush administration, when Tehran proposed discussing everything from stability in the Balkans to the development of Latin America with the United States and its allies -- but refused to consider even a temporary shutdown of its centrifuges."
And the Post again brought up the importance of getting "tough" with Iran and pushing for sanctions, a la Netanyahu, even though neither Russia nor China will have anything to do with more sanctions. (The Europeans don't really want more sanctions either, though they say they do. And Venezuela has offered to export whatever gasoline Iran needs if, in fact, the United States tries to impose a cut-off of refined petroleum products imported by Iran.)
We can only hope, now, that the United States and the rest of the P5 + 1 will table an offer to Iran to allow Tehran to maintain its uranium enrichment program, on its own soil, combined with a system of stronger international inspections. That's the end game: not regime change, not Big Bad Wolf threats of military action, not Hillary Clinton-style "crippling sanctions," not an Iran without uranium enrichment -- but an Iran that is ushered into the age of peaceful use of nuclear energy, including enrichment, in exchange for a comprehensive settlement.