Diary

Bush, Russia, and Iran- Part 2: Heated Rhetoric and Nukes

David J. Phillip

In part 1 of this series, I detailed the deterioration of relations between Russia (Putin) and the United States (Bush) and the likely causes and flash points.  Today, I look at how things became worse and centered on Iran.

As a summit in 2006 in St. Petersburg approached, Bush was under considerable political pressure.  After that summit, which ended without major drama, Dick Cheney visited Vilnius with a blistering speech against Putin for engaging in a pattern of intimidation, suspending democratic reforms, and blackmailing its neighbors with energy.  The speech was delivered on May 6 and on May 10 Putin responded by comparing the United States to a wolf with a ravenous appetite. 

What began as a skirmish over democracy became a frontal attack on the unipolar world order envisioned by Bush and the neoconservative hawks.  Putin saved his vitriol for the 2007 Munich Security Conference where he directly attacked the United States foreign policy saying “it has overstepped its borders” and had a disdain for international law.  If the United States had listed sins against Russia, Putin had his list of sins: that exporting democracy was a new term for colonialism, the West wanted to plunder Russia, Russia had been neglected from Kosovo to Iraq, on missile defense, on the stationing of US troops in Bulgaria and Romania, and the extension of NATO into former Soviet states and allies.

To Bush, there were only two areas where Russia and the United States overlapped in desire and they were terrorism and nuclear nonproliferation.  It is this latter issue which becomes important.  Bush was aware of the Clinton administration’s attempts to approach Iran and improve relations, but a lack of effort on the part of Iranian leaders convinced them that they were unwilling to deliver. 

After 9/11, there was engagement as Iran backed the Northern Alliance, the main group in Afghanistan used to oust the Taliban and put Bin Laden on the run.  In 2002, Iran was instrumental in getting the Afghan opposition to support America’s choice for leader, Hamid Karzai.  After the ouster of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, an irritant to Iran, negotiations were held in Baghdad between the US and Iranian officials to help stabilize Iraq politically.  But by 2004, it became obvious that Iran was arming and training Shiite insurgents in Iraq and, later, Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan.  Furthermore, there was evidence that Iran was arming Hamas, Hezbollah and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorist groups with sophisticated weapons for use against Israel.  

In January 2002, in his State of the Union address, Bush memorably stated that Iraq, Iran and North Korea were “an axis of evil.”  Given the scope and sophistication of the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration became increasingly afraid that the twin dangers of terrorism and nuclear attack would merge into a single threat.  The only three countries at the time thought to be supportive of terrorism and having or seeking a nuclear program were Iran, Iraq and North Korea- thus, the axis of evil.  Many around the world perceived the speech as war-mongering.

Then later in 2002 it was discovered that Iran had a secret uranium-enrichment facility in Natanz.  The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) pressed Iran for inspections.  Simultaneously, Britain, France and Germany sought a diplomatic solution to the problem.  In October 2003, they announced that Iran agreed to cease all enrichment activity and allow IAEA inspectors into Iran.  In response, the United States ceased efforts to keep Iran out of the World Trade Organization and considered selling spare parts for civilian Iranian aircraft.

The year 2005 brought new Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power who immediately denounced the agreements.  In April 2006, he announced that they had restarted their facility and research at Natanz.  The United States agreed to back an EU proposal to help Iran in a cooperative manner for civilian nuclear projects, if Tehran suspended enrichment activities.  The US supported Putin’s proposal to enrich fuel in Russia for Iran’s new nuclear reactor at Bushehr and transport the spent fuel rods back to Russia.  The United States decided they would join talks with Europe and Iran once they ended their enrichment efforts. 

Whenever negotiations seemed to be advancing, Ahmadinejad would interject with inflammatory rhetoric and threats.  After a final diplomatic effort failed in Geneva in 2008, Iran expanded their nuclear research and development.  As Iran balked, the UN passed four resolutions which led to sanctions against the Iranian regime and banks.  The US went further and sanctioned the Revolutionary Guard (IRGC), responsible for exporting terrorism and keeping dissent silent at home. 

In 2007, a NIE on the Iranian nuclear program became declassified which confirmed that they had a covert nuclear program which included weapon design, weaponry (ballistic missiles), and a uranium-enrichment network.  At the time, the Bush administration was pushing for more sanctions on Iran.  However, the NIE judged that the work at Natanz had ceased in 2003 and had not resumed.  This was predicated on the belief that international pressure, US intervention in Iraq and the seizure of a German cargo ship delivering centrifuges to Libya are what convinced the Iranians to at least temporarily cease their efforts.   By the time Bush left office, intelligence agencies were unsure whether Iran truly ceased their program.  Whatever the analysis, this NIE set back efforts by Bush to ratchet up the pressure with new sanctions.

It should be noted that the purpose of what came to be called the P5+1 in their negotiations with Iran was twofold.  First, it was to at least slow down Iranian nuclear development until, second, international pressure would convince them to abandon the program altogether.  Basically, this is what the rationale for Obama’s negotiations with Iran amounted to, although with Obama there were more give-aways to Iran with a stepped-up timetable of lifting of sanctions.

Next: The Iranians