Iran General NewsKey issue of Iran's nuclear ambition is ignored

Key issue of Iran’s nuclear ambition is ignored

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The Times: James Baker and Lee Hamilton have delivered a superb, blunt account of the US’s “dire” and “deteriorating” predicament in Iraq. Options have not yet been exhausted, they say, although none may now succeed; they have identified the few potentially workable ones that remain. The Times

Bronwen Maddox: World Briefing

James Baker and Lee Hamilton have delivered a superb, blunt account of the US’s “dire” and “deteriorating” predicament in Iraq. Options have not yet been exhausted, they say, although none may now succeed; they have identified the few potentially workable ones that remain.

Their strongest recommendation is to plan to pull US combat troops out by the spring of 2008, and to warn the Iraq Government that it may have only that period to bring warring groups together and improve security.

The first weakness is that the panel members allowed themselves nine months to deliberate, holding back their conclusions until a month after the congressional elections, and published the report too late. The panel’s plea for President Bush now to respond quickly, in case events overtake the recommendations, is an embarrassment.

The second is that in the members’ proper but relentless search for “pragmatism”, they ditch the idealism about the promotion of democratic values that accompanied the Iraq invasion. They advocate dealing with regimes that have been steadily malevolent to the US in a desperate quest for stability.

That would be tolerable if they could spell out what this engagement should achieve. Their failure to do that, with Iran and with the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock, is the greatest weakness.

The Baker-Hamilton commission was conceived in the image of the much-admired panel on the 9/11 attacks; one triumphant legacy is its similar use of unimprovably clear prose to make points that the White House will not.

It damns the US’s reconstruction efforts, which have consumed $16 billion (£8 billion) so far. All the remaining $18 billion has been committed, but Congress’s appetite for approving even more has now gone.

Those sums are dwarfed by the cost of the war overall: 2,900 US troops dead; 21,000 wounded; $400 billion spent so far, and $8 billion a month still flowing out. Counting the replacement of weapons and equipment, and caring for veterans, the eventual cost could be $2 trillion, it says.

The panel jettisons beyond retrieval the language of “stay the course”. It has little truck with Bush’s claim last week that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was “the right guy for the job”, pointing out that he is in hock to the Shia militias of Moqtada al-Sadr.

It is surely right to recommend planning to pull out troops as the only way of establishing whether al-Maliki shares US aims and can meet them. That is a rebuff to Bush and General George Casey, the coalition commander, who shared the philosophy of keeping troop levels high to restore security.

It is also a direct criticism of Senator John McCain, the loudest advocate of deploying many more US troops. They are simply not available, the panel says.

But the commission’s view that tens of thousands of troops should stay to embed with Iraqi forces and train them will get nowhere if al-Maliki’s aims clash with those of the US. He has already blocked US embedded troops from cracking down on Shia militias.

The woolliest parts are those most aired in advance, known to reflect Baker’s own views: the exhortation to engage with all of Iraq’s neighbours.

The panel calls this a “New Diplomatic Offensive” but the superfluous capital letters do nothing to give it substance.

In calling for new meetings between Israel and Palestinians, it does not address the obstacle currently frustrating that goal — the lack of Palestinian leadership with which to negotiate.

On Iran, it begins with some sensible suggestions. First, that the US is simply in too weak a position to strike any deal while it has so many troops in Iraq.

Secondly, that it might use the notional threat of Saudi assistance for Iraqi Sunnis to get Iran to the table.

But in saying that Iran’s nuclear ambitions should be dealt with separately, in the United Nations Security Council, it ducks the central problem: that the US wants Iran to help to achieve stability in Iraq but does not want to pay the price Iran has implicitly asked — to tolerate its nuclear ambitions.

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