Gary Sick, one of America's most experienced Middle East hands and proprieter of the Gulf 2000 list, has heard enough nervous nellies over the last few weeks to pen the following (reproduced with his permisssion). I will not comment as to my own nervous nelliness status, but since I'm in Charlottesville for the day and Drezner refuses to honor a perfectly reasonable cease-fire proposal, I hereby turn the floor over to the estimable Mr. Sick:
I keep reading comments that seem to declare that the Obama administration is simply continuing the failed policies of the Bush administration and that there seems to be no movement toward a different relationship with Iran. I think that judgment is terribly premature.
There is a flurry of signaling by the US -- both positive and negative: keeping pressure on Iran (Stuart Levey and restrictions on banks), reassuring Israel (appointment of Ross) & Arabs (Hillary's downplaying of expectations at Sharm el-Sheikh), providing some funding for the Palestinians while pressing Israel to relax entry into Gaza, renewing an opening to Syria, talking about cutting US nuke stockpiles (US Ambassador Schulte in Vienna), talk of including Iran in Afghan security discussions (Holbrook), willingness to remove (anti-Iran) missile defense in E Eur while cajoling Russia on Iranian missile development, nice words from Obama (sometimes), harsh words from Susan Rice (always?), tough words from Adm Mullen, more soothing words from SecDef Gates, unified declaration about Iran by all five UN veto powers at the IAEA (without threatening new sanctions or return to the UNSC), etc etc.
We've seen nothing like this for as long as I can remember. Almost none of this would have been possible under Bush. It's actually possible that what we are seeing is (gasp) diplomacy, or preparation for it. It includes pressure on Iran, which I think was inevitable, but it potentially allows for much more.
At the same time, Iran is sending some positive and negative signals of its own. Could it be that both sides are trying to maximize their leverage and keep the other side off balance in preparation for serious discussion? Can they really walk and chew gum at the same time?
We are so accustomed to what Bush called diplomacy (hit them over the head with an axe; if they don't respond, repeat) that we may have forgotten that parties engaged in international negotiations are not required to eschew subtlety or to commit themselves in advance to a simple position (otherwise known as a red line) which is then defended to the death. Are we really restricted to a single, simplistic narrative prescribed by advocates on one side or the other?
Maybe nothing will come of all this, but I'm not ready to dismiss the current flurry of mixed and ambiguous signals as merely more of the same or to declare failure. Steady nerves - it's only six weeks (and in the meantime there happens to be a REAL threat to all of us -- world economic meltdown, not Iranian hypothetical nukes)!