Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Bush "Encouraged" By Moderates' Gains In Iran, But Actions Speak Louder Than Words

President Bush was encouraged by moderates' gains in this month's Iranian elections, according to Jewish leaders who met with him earlier this month.

Bush has been surprisingly mum about the elections, in which allies of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad lost ground among the main political groups, which analysts have said was a setback for the fiery leader and a possible sign of growing frustration among Iranians.

Bush did say at a press conference last week that Iranians "can do better than having somebody who's trying to develop a nuclear weapon that the world believes you shouldn't have."

But why hasn't Bush spoken out more about the elections? Or better yet, why hasn't Bush used the election results as an opportunity to try to reign in Iran through diplomacy?

I'm paraphrasing the late Israeli leader Abba Eban, but Bush, it would seem, "never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity" when it comes to diplomatic solutions for the Middle East.

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It would be easy for Bush, or Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice on his behalf, or some coalition of U.S. leaders -- James Baker and Colin Powell come to mind -- to reach out to Ahmadinejad and quietly say that if he continues to isolate his country on the wrong side of the "Axis of Evil," only bad things can come to him and his country.

Another angle would be to reach out to our "moderate" Middle East friends to bridge the gap with Ahmadinejad.

The key is that diplomacy does not equal appeasement, as the conservative talking heads and radio ranters will tell you. British Prime Minister Tony Blair -- who last month said that Syria and Iran could play a "constructive" role in the Middle East -- understood as much when he said that it is absurd to suggest that talking to the countries amounted to appeasement.

While the U.S. has stayed on the sidelines, Ahmadinejad has tried to flex his country's muscles, reaching out to Iraq and Syria.

And the U.S. reaction has been to continue to polarize Iran. The Bush Administration says Iran is interfering with Iraq, and this week announced it had linked Iranians detained last week in Iraq with shipments of weapons to groups in Iraq.

We should remain tough with Iran, and try to seal off Iranian help to Iraqi insurgents. But being tough and having a dialogue are not mutually exclusive. Again, the Bush Administration has to stop believing neocon advisors who insist that diplomacy equals appeasement.

The election results in Iran have opened a door. Bush can score political points here at home -- given that just about everyone outside the neocon universe thinks the U.S. needs to open diplomatic channels -- and it might actually help contain an increasingly unstable Middle East.

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