Washington hardliners wary of engaging with Iran
By Guy Dinmore in Washington
Published: March 16 2004
Iran’s proposal of a road map leading to the restoration of relations with the US did not come as a complete surprise to the Bush administration, but it has intensified a fierce internal debate between “realists” and “neo-conservatives” over ambitious plans to remake the wider Middle East.
Signs of an overture from Tehran had been picked up by Washington a year before the invasion of Iraq, as Iran’s faction-riven clerical rulers struggled to reach a consensus over how to respond to the threat inherent in the “Axis of Evil” speech by President George W. Bush in January 2002.
Even before May last year when the road map proposal arrived from Tim Guldimann, the Swiss ambassador representing US interests in Iran, a suggestion had been aired by Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president.
Mr Rafsanjani, a powerful figure central to several abortive bids over the past 18 years to strike deals with the US, suggested the question of Iran-US relations could be put to a referendum, a move almost sure to secure approval for rapprochement.
His remarks were published in Tehran soon after the fall of Baghdad. But instead of replying to Tehran, an official said the State Department rebuked the Swiss foreign ministry for overstepping its diplomatic mandate. Mr Guldimann told the Financial Times he never commented on such matters.
According to the US side, the Iranian offer mentioned cutting off support to the militant Palestinian groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and converting Lebanon’s Hizbollah into a purely socio-political organisation. Iran also indicated it could recognise Israel and a separate Palestinian state.
But it was not clear whether Iran was prepared to abandon its development of the nuclear fuel cycle programme, including uranium enrichment that can be used to run reactors or make bombs.
The offer was said to come from a senior Iranian official designated two years ago by Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, to co-ordinate a special committee on US relations. The Bush administration did not question the authenticity of the proposal, a US official said.
Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, followed up with a commentary in the International Herald Tribune on May 12 suggesting talks with the US on Iraq and the nuclear issue.
Mr Zarif played an important role in mediating with Lebanese groups in the early 1990s to secure the release of western hostages in Beirut. Mr Rafsanjani was then president.
Important figures on the US side then, and still wielding influence now, are Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser under Mr Bush’s father, and Thomas Pickering, then US ambassador to the UN. Now in the private sector, both encourage engagement. Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, backs Mr Scowcroft’s talks with Mr Zarif.
Fellow realists inside the administration include Colin Powell, the secretary of state, and his deputy, Richard Armitage.
Last October, Mr Armitage told a congressional hearing that pursuit of regime change was not official US policy and that change should come from within. His statement had not been cleared with all other departments.
Another believed to favour engagement is Robert Blackwill, strategic planner for the Middle East under Ms Rice. He was quoted as telling a meeting of European diplomats that “Bush has a vision for the Greater Middle East but not a strategy. My job is to make sure that gap doesn’t cost him an election.”
But for US hardliners and neo-conservatives, their experience of Iran is dominated by events a decade earlier – the morass of Lebanon and the Iran-Contra debacle when Ronald Reagan, then US president, tried to trade guns for hostages.
For Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary, Iran and its creation Hizbollah cannot be forgiven for the retreat of US forces from Lebanon in 1983 after 241 Marines were killed by a bomb.
For many in the Bush administration, that humiliation, followed by no meaningful retaliation, created an image of American weakness in the Arab world that ultimately encouraged the al-Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2001.
US officials concede that the blood spilt in Beirut and the 444-day Tehran embassy hostage crisis have left baggage far weightier than Libya’s destruction of the Pan Am flight over Scotland or the Korean war half a century ago.
A bargain can be struck with Muammer Gadaffi of Libya or Kim Jong-il of North Korea because there is no internal opposition or alternative, officials say. But in Iran, US hardliners see an alternative to bargaining: a mass of discontented people who are ready to revolt, perhaps with US help.
In May Mr Rumsfeld responded to Iran’s overtures by fighting for regime change to be made official US policy, though not necessarily through military means. He attacked Iran publicly, accusing it of being unhelpful over Iraq. He told the Council on Foreign Relations that getting into a close, intimate relationship with Iran would give its clerics the legitimacy they craved and discourage Iranians who sought change.
The neo-conservatives believe the Iranian regime will collapse sooner rather than later. The realists are not so sure. For Mr Bush, who has no personal experience of Iran, it is a moral question. In speeches on the Middle East, he has said that consorting with tyrants such as the Shah of Iran or his religious successors has rebounded on America.
Reuel Gerecht, an Iran expert at the right-wing American Enterprise Institute, says the realist school sees a silver lining in the conservatives’ rigging of last month’s elections that ended four years of reformist majority.
Writing in the Weekly Standard, he said the realists (his political rivals) believed the “pragmatic conservatives are the men to cut a deal” over Iran’s weapons of mass destruction. “The realist temptation in the American foreign policy establishment is always powerful, principally because it is the path of least resistance and least action and it dovetails nicely with the status quo reflexes of the State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the military brass at the Pentagon,” he wrote.
Senator John Kerry, the Democrats’ challenger to Mr Bush in this year’s election, appears to have embraced the realist cause.
US officials admit the Bush administration’s dysfunctional policy on Iran has resulted in confused signals such as the sizeable relief effort for the quake-stricken city of Bam, a moderate, European-led approach on the nuclear issue within the International Atomic Energy Agency, and indecision over how to deal with a growing Iranian presence in Iraq.
Mr Gerecht expresses the concern of neo-conservatives that Mr Bush is “going soft” because of the sobering US experience in Iraq. The administration is urged to take a tougher approach on Iran, especially in response to its suspected sheltering of al-Qaeda fugitives.
Much more than Iran is at stake. What neo-conservatives foresee as a generational struggle with the Islamic world could start or finish with the regime in Tehran.
As Mr Gerecht concluded: “If the Bush administration is serious about transforming the Muslim Middle East – and the jury is still out on whether it is – it will inevitably unsettle, if not alienate, every single pro-American king, emir and dictator in the region.”