The US-Iran talks start Thursday in Geneva and, while a lot of other countries will be there too — the UK, France, Russia, China, and Germany are all part of the so-called P5 + 1 — it’s really the United States and Iran who will have to make a deal. Even the latest flareup over the secret Iranian enrichment facility doesn’t change the basic fact: that Washington and Tehran, after three decades without diplomatic relations, will be talking. It’s a startling and important reversal of US policy, as promised by candidate Barack Obama in 2008, abandoning the charged rhetoric of the Bush administration, which lumped Iran incongruously into the Axis of Evil in 2002 and looked aghast at the idea of negotiating with Iran.
Robert Gates, the secretary of defense, did his part yesterday to lower the temperature of the rhetoric by stating explicitly that the US does not have a military option to deal with Iran’s nuclear program. He didn’t exactly take the military option “off the table,” as the unfortunate phrase goes, but he did say:
“The reality is, there is no military option that does nothing more than buy time. The only way you end up not having a nuclear-capable Iran is for the Iranian government to decide that their security is diminished by having those weapons, as opposed to strengthened.”
Gates, of course, has long been opposed to a military strike on Iran, and a few years ago he co-chaired a Council on Foreign Relations task force on Iran that opposed the military option and called for US engagement with Iran in pursuit of a comprehensive accord. (Incidentally, if you want to read a lengthy account of why a military strike on Iran, by Israel or the United States, would be so difficult, read CSIS’ Anthony Cordesman’s “The Iran Attack Plan,” published Friday in the Wall Street Journal.) However, like the rest of the Obama administration’s top officials, including the increasingly hawkish secretary of state, Gates did emphasize that the alternative if Iran doesn’t deal is a toughened regime of economic sanctions. “There obviously is the opportunity for severe additional sanctions. I think we have the time to make that work,” he said.