The Bush administration is conducting a "policy review" toward Iran that is provoking a swirl of questions in the capital's national security wonkdom. Here's mine: How do you review something that does not exist?
The task of managing this reexamination of a policy unicorn (or is it a dragon?) falls to Elliott Abrams, a senior staffer for President Bush's National Security Council. No one should envy Abrams this onerous task.
Years of American fumbling for a workable approach toward the hostile theocratic regime in Tehran have yielded only a single sentence as agreed Bush policy. The sentence, which Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice delivered in fancy dress to the Europeans during her current travels, comes down to this:
The United States will take no action that extends legitimacy to the ayatollahs in Iran. Pressed, Rice may add: Nada. Zip. No way. Or elaborate diplospeak equivalents.
The statement is the unalterable starting point for the policy review, U.S. officials indicate. It is intended to refocus and end the divisive internal debate over Iran that marked Bush's first term. "We have four or five policies toward Iran, which means we have no policy toward Iran," a foreign policy official said last year in one characteristic comment.
The formulation predictably brings no joy to the three European countries that are trying to negotiate Iran out of its nuclear weapons ambitions and its support for international terrorism. Britain, France and Germany are in fact trying to pull the United States into a more expansive statement of support for their efforts. In Rice's talks abroad, Iran will be the only truly contentious subject.
The practical approach the Europeans have adopted to this problem from diplomatic hell is useful. But they must calibrate carefully what they want from Washington and compromise to achieve it. There are limits to engagement as a policy, just as there are limits to "delegitimizing" and isolating enemies. Only a well-coordinated allied effort has any chance of succeeding.
The Iranian regime is as untrustworthy as Bush says. But it is self-defeating to reduce policy to ringing and emotionally satisfy- ing declarations that are accompanied by punitive but survivable economic restrictions. For elucidation, see Cuba, U.S. embargo of.
The good and the bad of an Iran policy that is essentially self-referential and declaratory in nature were both on display Wednesday in Bush's mostly impressive State of the Union address. (His deft prodding of Egypt and Saudi Arabia to become more democratic deserves particular notice.) Bush denounced the ayatollahs and then promised that the United States would stand with Iran's democratic reformers. It was stirring as vision but unfulfilled as verbal architecture.
The Europeans are asking Rice and Bush to do more than continue to endorse vaguely and periodically their negotiations with Iran, as the president did Wednesday. One example under discussion has been a desire by Tehran for Washington to offer explicit prior support for a serious regional security dialogue suggested by the Europeans.
That request for explicit American support falls afoul of the White House's "no legitimacy" standard as now interpreted. But the Iranian regime is an established fact, with strong potential for cooperation or mischief in Iraq's reconstruction, the Middle East peace process, the politics of nonproliferation and other urgent issues. Pretending that Washington can determine the regime's legitimacy at this point is illusory.
That does not mean Bush should abandon his criticism of the Iranian regime or take off the table the implied threat to seek global sanctions or to use force if all else fails. The Europeans will get nowhere if there is not in the background a credible U.S. threat of force to block Iran's nefarious ambitions, as Rice suggested in public comments Friday.
An integrated transatlantic strategy goes far beyond pursuing a crude good cop-bad cop routine. As the Cold War merging of the doctrines of deterrence and detente demonstrated, effective transatlantic cooperation can buy time for dictators and demagogues to undermine themselves.
The realistic joint goal should be to work effectively to change Iran's behavior (listen up, Europe) and to let its own people attend to their country's regime (that's for you, Washington). Carefully targeted support for Iran's reformers (visas, open-source funding for nongovernmental organizations, etc.) can help more than fanciful attempts at delegitimization and national isolation.
History is a collective enterprise. Bush has set the stage for dramatic change in a vital but chaotic region. Here's hoping the policy review illuminates for him the need to let others share the stage in the next, decisive act.