Wednesday, July 21, 2004

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Another square-off over Iran
By Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON - A new round in the ongoing battle between realists and neo-conservative and other hawks over Iran policy began this week as a task force of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) published a report urging Washington to engage Tehran on a selected range of issues of mutual concern.

The task force, co-chaired by Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser under former president Jimmy Carter (1977-81), and including Robert Gates, the head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) under past president George H W Bush (1989-93), argues that neo-conservative and other analysts who are urging that Washington pursue "regime change" in Iran underestimate the staying power of the current government there.

"Despite considerable political flux and popular dissatisfaction," the 79-page report said, "Iran is not on the verge of another revolution. Those forces that are committed to preserving Iran's current system remain firmly in control."

The report, "Iran: Time for a New Approach", also argues that Washington's invasion of Iraq, as well as Iran's rapid progress in developing possible nuclear-weapons capability, makes it more urgent than ever to resume and broaden bilateral talks that broke off 14 months ago.

But it stresses that a "grand bargain" to settle all outstanding conflicts between Washington and Tehran is unrealistic and that talks should focus instead on making "incremental progress" on a variety of key issues, including regional stability and Iran's nuclear ambitions.

The 21 task-force members also stressed that Washington should offer fewer sticks and more carrots than in the past, suggesting, "The prospect of [Iran opening] commercial relations with the United States could be a powerful tool in Washington's arsenal."

The report's recommendations are considered anathema to the neo-conservative hawks closely associated with Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who led the drive to war in Iraq.

Indeed, its release was met with a furious attack by Michael Ledeen, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, who is particularly close to both former Defense Policy Board chairman Richard Perle and Defense Under Secretary for Policy Douglas Feith, and who has long asserted that Iran is ripe for revolution by "democratic" forces that deserve US support.

Ledeen, who considers Tehran the global capital of Islamist "terror masters", wrote in National Review Online that the CFR recommendations were "humiliating" and constituted "appeasement".

They were made worse, he added, in light of leaks last weekend that the soon-to-be-released final report of the bipartisan commission investigating the September 11, 2001, attacks will assert that Iran provided members of al-Qaeda, including some of the hijackers, safe passage during the year before the attacks.

The issue comes at a particularly sensitive moment in the evolution of US-Iranian relations, which were formally broken off 25 years ago after militants captured the US Embassy in Tehran and held its diplomats hostage.

As noted in the report, the United States currently has about 160,000 troops - 20,000 in Afghanistan and 140,000 in Iraq - deployed just across the borders with Iran, named by President George W Bush in 2002 as a charter member of the "axis of evil" along with Iraq and North Korea.

Reports over the past month that Israel may be planning a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities have added to existing tensions, particularly due to uncertainties regarding Tehran's dialogues over its nuclear program with the United Kingdom, France, Germany and the International Atomic Energy Agency.

These new factors have intensified the three-and-a-half-year-old struggle within the Bush administration between the hawks, particularly the neo-conservatives for whom the security of Israel is a core commitment, and the realists, who are led by Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Powell, in turn, is backed by a number of top alumni of past Republican and Democratic administrations, including Bush Sr's former national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, Brzezinski, and Frank Carlucci, who served as national security adviser and defense secretary for the late president Ronald Reagan (1981-89) and also participated in the task force.

While the hawks dominated Middle East policy from September 11 through the Iraq invasion, their star faded as that adventure came increasingly to resemble a quagmire, so that the realists appear to have gained the upper hand at the moment, at least as concerns Iraq.

The realists have also been strengthened by the perception that US forces in the region, which seemed irresistible in the wake of the Afghan and Iraq campaigns, are now seen as much more vulnerable and thus less of a military threat to Iran than 14 months ago. "Military action [is now] highly unlikely to be attempted and, if attempted, to be successful," Gates said on Monday.

But if the internal balance of power on Iraq favors the realists, the situation regarding Iran is less clear. While few analysts believe Washington would launch a military strike on Tehran before the November elections, speculation that a second Bush term would make "regime change" in Iran a top priority has been persistent.

And forces in Congress that back Israel's governing Likud Party are already moving to endorse legislation that would officially endorse such a goal as official US policy.

It is in this context that the task force, whose membership was convened by CFR's new president and former top Powell aide, Richard Haass, is calling for selective engagement with Tehran. "The realistic alternative," according to Gates, "is US isolation and impotence."

The critical message is that neo-conservative claims that the Islamic Republic is on its last legs represent wishful thinking. Given Iran's ability to make trouble for Washington in both Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as advances made in its nuclear program, the current situation "mandates the United States to deal with the current regime rather than wait for it to fall", argues the report, which recommends five specific steps.

First, the administration should offer Tehran a "direct dialogue on specific issues of regional stabilization", much as it did for 18 months between the US campaign in Afghanistan and May 2003, when Washington accused Iran of harboring leaders of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda responsible for attacks in Saudi Arabia.

Second, Washington should press to clarify the status of al-Qaeda operatives detained by Tehran, in exchange for ensuring that the Iraq-based Iranian rebel group Mujahedin-e-Khalq is disbanded and its leaders brought to justice for terrorist acts. Any security dialogue, however, must be conditioned on assurances that Tehran is not providing support to groups violently opposed to the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Third, the US should work closely with Europe and Russia to ensure that Iran follows through on its commitment that it is not developing nuclear weapons by getting it to extend its freeze on all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities to a permanent ban and take other steps to guarantee compliance. In exchange, Washington should remove its objections to an Iranian civil nuclear program.

Fourth, Washington should resume an active role in negotiating peace between Israel and the Palestinians, which the report says is "central to eventually stemming the tide of extremism in the region".

Finally, the administration should promote people-to-people and commercial exchanges between Iran and the wider world, including authorizing US non-governmental organizations to operate in Iran, and agreeing to Iran's application to begin accession talks with the World Trade Organization.

Both Gates and Brzezinski said the administration should also use its influence to prevent a possible Israeli military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities, which, according to Brzezinski, would have "extremely adverse consequences" both for proponents of change in Iran and for the US position in Iraq and Afghanistan, where Tehran could be expected to retaliate.

It would be impossible for Israeli warplanes to reach their targets without flying in air space controlled by the US military, pointed out Brzezinski.

What to do over Iran
Meanwhile, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reports that Bush says he hopes to get to the bottom of the report on Iran and September 11, with the help of John McLaughlin, the acting head of the CIA.

Bush said: "Of course we want to know all the facts. Acting director McLaughlin said there was no direct connection between Iran and the attacks of September 11. We will continue to look and see if the Iranians were involved. I have long expressed my concerns about Iran - after all, it's a totalitarian society."

Bush's statement was one of his toughest remarks on Iran in recent months. But State Department spokesman Richard Boucher has said the US is "willing to sit down" and talk with the Iranians "if the president determines it's in our interest to do so and we think there's the opportunity for progress".

McLaughlin, speaking to a television news program on Sunday, said the government "has no evidence" of an official connection between Tehran and September 11.

But no matter what US intelligence agencies learn, there may be little the US can do - or even might want to do - to punish Iran.

Marina Ottaway, a specialist in Middle Eastern and African issues at the Washington-based think-tank Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told RFE/RL that the commission's report, if accurate, is only the latest of several reasons that invading Iraq was a mistake. Now, Ottaway said, Bush's emphasis on military action in its foreign policy has left it little room to take meaningful action against Iran.

"There is not a lot that the US can do on Iran right now," Ottaway said, adding that the US "certainly does not have a military option the way things are, and it needs some cooperation from Iran on Iraq. Iran certainly has the capacity to make things in Iraq much more difficult for the United States. At the same time, the United States does not have the option of doing in Iran what it did in Iraq, and that is changing the regime."

Ottaway said a policy of regime change can succeed only if the US has enough military might. But given the resources that the Bush administration already has devoted to Iraq and Afghanistan, she said, it has left itself with few military options elsewhere. "By going to war in Iraq, the US narrowed its options toward Iran and toward North Korea," Ottaway said. "In other words, there are only so many wars the US can fight at one time."

Another analyst, Nathan Brown, said he finds it unlikely that Iran and al-Qaeda would have any significant contacts. Brown, a professor of international political science at George Washington University in Washington, cited the deeply conflicting religious principles held by the Iranian government on one side and al-Qaeda on the other.

"Any strong connection [between Iran and al-Qaeda] would be implausible," Brown said. "The environment which bin Laden comes out of is one which regards Shi'ite Muslims as not simply mistaken but as apostate. But it also strikes me as not impossible, but quite strange and maybe implausible, that the Iranians would even approach them, because there's bad blood that goes back a couple of hundred years - there's very deep bad blood."

Brown said there appears to be no evidence that Iran actually had a role in the September 11 attacks, and for that reason alone he does not expect a strong response from the US.

"The conclusions [of the independent 9-11 Commission] might be leaked, but the evidence we may never know," Brown said. "So, unless we've got hard evidence, it doesn't seem to me to be wise to make too much out of it. And also, it's my reading of the political situation: That's what's likely going to happen. Right now just does not seem to be the time for an American-Iranian confrontation." "


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