As the White House prepares the ground for direct diplomacy with Iran on a handful of issues, a group of Iran hawks gathered in Washington to discuss their views on how to handle what they describe as a "series of provocative actions" by Tehran beyond its ongoing nuclear development.
Some of their comments revealed a willingness to engage and a hesitancy to bomb Iran, possibly representing a mainstreaming of their views.
But while U.S. President Barack Obama slowly works his way through the early phases of engaging Iran, some are also pushing to give him more sticks to wave over Iran’s head at the same time he offers carrots.
Congress is in the process of introducing bills that would give Obama the authority to impose extraterritorial sanctions by punishing foreign companies that sell gasoline and other petroleum products to Iran.
Neoconservative independent Sen. Joe Lieberman introduced legislation Tuesday, and Rep. Mark Kirk, a close ally of the so-called Israel lobby, introduced a bill last week that would do essentially the same thing.
Speaking at an American Enterprise Institute (AEI) conference on Iran, Lieberman said his bill was "very similar" to Kirk’s and hoped that they would soon be combined into law, noting that he had the support of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
The bills are expected to receive the support of thousands of conference-goers at next week’s summit of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the most prominent organ of Washington’s powerful Israel lobby. Attendees at the conference will go to Capitol Hill on Tuesday to speak with their representatives in Congress and, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, are expected to push hard for the sanctions bills.
But for Lieberman and other neoconservatives who spoke on a panel following his remarks at AEI, endorsing talks with the Islamic Republic, even while introducing sanctions designed to give the president authority to "cripple" Iran, represents a softening of their stances.
Gone are references to an "evil" and "irrational" regime in Iran, as was the hawks’ blanket opposition to engagement during last fall’s campaign, based on the idea that diplomacy in general will do the unthinkable by strengthening and emboldening unsavory elements in Iran.
Even the new potential sanctions were discussed with a conscientious mindfulness of their impact on Iranians.
"Look, we need to be honest about this," said AEI resident scholar Fred Kagan. "Iranians are going to die if we impose additional sanctions."
The comment sparked a discussion during the question and answer sessions where Kagan declared that he was for sanctions, even though there was a "human cost" anytime sanctions regimes take away a "vital resource" from a society where some segments are "borderline."
Even the issue of an Iran with nuclear weapons is longer regarded with the same apocalyptic language that has been used in the past, with most panelists saying the biggest threat was Iran being emboldened to "act out" with what Lieberman called its "terrorist proxies."
Lieberman clearly disliked the idea, noting that he disagreed with those who said "we can learn to live with a nuclear Iran," but Kagan said that he thinks that living with a nuclear Iran is a position that "reasonable people" can take, though he didn’t agree either.
The panel viewed the sanctions, engagement, and a potential military strike as tactics toward getting what the U.S. wants from Iran though the latter was portrayed as an undesirable outcome.
"I am not advocating a military strike against Iran," said Kagan, later describing himself as "someone who is desperate to avoid war with Iran."
"If there were any military strike on Iran, people would rally around the flag," warned Michael Rubin, another neoconservative at AEI.
The panel viewed the question of a potential Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear facilities raised by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in an interview last month negatively, albeit for different reasons.
While Rubin insisted several times that Israel is a sovereign state and will act as such, Ken Pollack of the Brookings Institution took the view that an Israeli strike was the "worst" option from an "American perspective." He said that, absent capabilities like those of the U.S., Israel could not "flatten every building in Iran that has anything to do with the nuclear program," but a strike would, nonetheless, incur all the negative consequences of a direct U.S. strike.
But Pollack also thought the strike was unlikely: "On a practical level, Israel really doesn’t like to do things that invoke [the ire] of the U.S."
Lieberman and the panel, however, said that using military power remained an option, and that engagement had to approached cautiously and carefully.
"By rushing into engagement without considering timing," Rubin said, "every [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad rebuff becomes a populist chip."
And Rubin doesn’t hold out much hope that this June’s Iranian election will bring much change to the Islamic Republic or its nuclear program, noting that Iran’s real power is based in the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
"There will be some issues decided in the Iranian elections," he said. "Unfortunately, they will be issues of style, not substance."
"Rather than move toward resolution," he said, "[the Iranians] will throw up more obstacles."
Pollack, a sometime neoconservative ally who was jokingly introduced as being from "AEI West," said that people in Washington are getting "euphoric about engagement."
"As [Lieberman] put it, engagement is not a strategy; it is a tactic," Pollack said, echoing a pervasive theme of the afternoon that underscored the uncertainty of how Obama’s Iran policy review is shaping up. But he said that while the Iranian regime was still "authoritarian" and "brutish," that didn’t preclude better relations.
One of the benefits of engagement, said Pollack, was that the U.S. could "reach out to Iranian people and see that their government doesn’t serve their interests."
The panel, in general, seemed to shy away from forcing regime change in Iran, at least in the short term.
Said Kagan, "If you want to do regime change in Iran you have to invade."
Such a prospect, he said, would require 600,000 soldiers impossible with forces already stretched thin between Iraq and Afghanistan. Regime change, he said, was something "we are going to aim for over generations."
(Inter Press Service)