Bush Remark Derails Iranian Rapprochement

By WILLIAM O. BEEMAN Pacifc News Service
Tuesday January 06, 2004

In one ill-chosen, offhand remark on New Year’s Day, President Bush undercut the immediate possibility of improved relations with Iran, savaging the efforts of his own State Department.  

It seemed that Washington was at last doing something positive for American-Iranian relations in the wake of the terrible human tragedy of the earthquake in Bam, Iran. The State Department was poised to sponsor a blue-ribbon humanitarian visit by relief experts headed by former Red Cross director, now U.S. Senator Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.).  

In his remarks on the Bam tragedy, President Bush first praised his own administration for its compassion. Then he knocked the Iranians on the head. “The Iranian government must listen to the voices of those who long for freedom, must turn over Al Qaeda (members) that are in their custody and must abandon their nuclear weapons program,” Bush said.  

The Iranians thanked the United States for its concern, and then rejected the humanitarian visit, saying that such an event was “premature.”  

There is no doubt that President Bush’s remarks were the prime reason for the rejection of the humanitarian visit when one examines the reactions of Iranian officials as reported by London’s Financial Times and other press sources on Jan. 5. The Iranians immediately became suspicious that the U.S. visit was a political ploy.  

“Political issues must be examined and resolved in their own place, for which there are conditions,” said Kamal Kharrazi, the foreign minister addressing the decision to reject the visit.  

Hamid Reza Asefi, Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman, noted that Washington was speaking with “different voices.” He reiterated on Jan. 4 that Iran was open to talks based on “mutual respect,” but insisted the United States should not “tell Iran what to do,” referring clearly to the president’s remarks.  

In the wake of the Bam earthquake, the U.S. government provided relief aid, and more important, the ineffective economic sanctions against Iran that have been in place for nearly two decades were lifted for 90 days to allow financial aid to be transmitted to the Iranian disaster victims. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, in an interview published in the Washington Post on Dec. 30, said that Iran’s recent actions had been “encouraging” and that the United States was open to “the possibility of dialogue at an appropriate point in the future.”  

But the neo-conservatives in Washington could not let well enough alone. As it lifted the ban on economic activities, the Bush administration issued a series of disclaimers pointing out that the sanctions were lifted temporarily for purely humanitarian purposes, with no implications for change of policy.  

In his remarks, Bush’s three “conditions” for improved relations reflect specious and inaccurate characterizations of Iran. The first, his charge to “listen to the voices of those who long for freedom,” is astonishingly vague. Most Americans do not realize that Iran has open and fair elections. The Iranian constitution, which gives inordinate power to conservative clerics, is now seen as flawed by many Iranian citizens. However, the nation follows its precepts assiduously.  

Elections for the Iranian parliament, the Majlis, will take place this year, and the nation will choose a new president next year. These events will be telling. Many Iranians are disappointed with the efforts of “reformists” such as President Khatami (who can not succeed himself). They plan to boycott the elections to deny the clerical establishment legitimacy if reform candidates are not allowed to run. Thus the Iranian people are likely to find their own solutions to their problems with representative government.  

Next, Bush’s call for Iran to give up members of Al Qaeda is a baseless charge. It presumes that these people exist. Iran repatriated Al Qaeda members fleeing from Afghanistan shortly after the American invasion, and there is no proof at all that there are any others of any consequence still in Iran. Merely to charge Iran with releasing these ephemeral people is to maintain the demonizing charge that Iran is the “chief sponsor of terrorism” in the world. In fact, Iranian officials have absolutely no reason to protect Al Qaeda members: They are utterly opposed to both the Taliban and Al Qaeda on both religious and political grounds.  

The last charge in the Bush message is equally specious. Iran has now complied fully with every international protocol for its nuclear development program, including additional international inspections. There is now no nation in better official compliance with international safeguards against weapons development than Iran.  

When Washington accuses Iranian leaders over and over of things they haven’t done, or are in the process of correcting, they simply retaliate with equally specious accusations. Iran’s leaders receive Bush’s statements as a clear indication that there is no way to deal with U.S. leaders on a rational basis. Everything gets set back to square one.  

President Bush desperately needs a verbal caretaker, such as former White House advisor Karen Hughes, at all times. When a U.S. president speaks, even in a casual manner, the world listens. Offhand remarks on sensitive issues risk doing irreparable damage.  


PNS contributor William O. Beeman teaches anthropology and directs Middle East Studies at Brown University. He is author of the forthcoming book, Double Demons: Cultural Impediments to U.S.-Iranian Understanding.