The earthquake that leveled Bam last week appears to have provided an opening for pro-détente forces in both Washington and Teheran.
Washington’s sympathy, expressed dramatically in the dispatch of relief workers and a dozen planeloads of emergency aid, elicited warm words from reformist President Mohammed Khatami and from conservative leaders and media in Teheran. Up to 50,000 people have died in the earthquake that hit the ancient Iranian city just before dawn Dec. 26.
Reports Friday that the George W. Bush administration had proposed sending a delegation led by former head of the American Red Cross Sen. Elizabeth Dole to discuss additional assistance fueled hopes that the two countries can establish a more businesslike relationship.
“I hope both sides will use this opportunity to break the ice and move forward in a positive direction,” Geoffrey Kemp, Middle East adviser to former President Ronald Reagan and currently with the Nixon Center told IPS Friday. “But it’s too early to tell,” he added, noting likely opposition in both capitals.
Indeed, without explicitly rejecting the proposed visit, Teheran asked that Dole’s trip be “held in abeyance” for the time being, the State Department announced later Friday.
The announcement from the State Department followed charges aired earlier Friday by Iran’s hardline state radio that Washington was using publicity over aid “to implement (its) duplicitous policy of creating a rift between the Iranian nation and government.”
To some extent, such a reaction was to be expected, says James Bill, a veteran Iran analyst at the William and Mary University in Virginia. A visit by Dole “may be too high-profile,” he said. “The U.S. should know it has to adopt a quiet diplomatic approach in which the table is set behind the scenes. Sending high-level politicians is questionable.”
But the fact that Bush endorsed a trip by Dole, wife of 1986 Republican presidential candidate Robert Dole, appeared to confirm that the momentum now lies with foreign policy “realists” at the State Department. This group has been fighting a long, uphill battle against hawks who succeeded two years ago in having Bush name Teheran as part of an “axis of evil” along with Iraq and North Korea.
“Well before the earthquake there were already clear indications that the realists in the administration were being heard and that their perspective was getting more attention than in the past,” says Gary Sick, former president Jimmy Carter’s top Iran aide who now teaches at Columbia University.
“While there was no full-scale change of policy towards Iran, the people who believe in greater engagement were on the ascendant,” he says. Sick points to high-profile statements over the past several months by Secretary of State Colin Powell and his deputy Richard Armitage in favor of resuming a dialogue with Iran.
The dialogue was cut off last May when the Pentagon said a terrorist attack on a foreign residential compound in Saudi Arabia was organized by al Qaeda from Iranian territory.
A turning point came during Congressional testimony last October when Armitage said the administration did not favor “regime change” in Teheran. He said Washington was “prepared to engage in limited discussions with the government of Iran about areas of mutual interest, as appropriate.”
At the same time Washington announced its backing for a European initiative to persuade Teheran to accept stricter international inspections of its nuclear sites and suspend production of enriched uranium.
Teheran signed a special protocol of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) two weeks ago. The move was praised by Powell and subsequently noted by Bush. This led former United Nations Ambassador Thomas Pickering, one of Washington’s most influential foreign policy thinkers, to propose in the Washington Post a detailed set of quid pro quos that would satisfy US fears about Iran’s nuclear program and Teheran’s fears about its security.
Several key US allies in the Arab world, particularly Jordan’s King Abdullah, have also helped détente along. King Abdullah is reported to have stressed Teheran’s importance as a stabilizing factor in the region in recent talks with Bush.
Many foreign policy realists both in and outside the administration argue that Iran’s cooperation is critical to stabilizing Iraq, as it has been in Afghanistan.
Washington’s success in Iraq depends increasingly on its good relations with the majority Shia population over which Iran’s clergy could exercise substantial influence. “They could make our life much more difficult than it already is in both countries,” an administration official told IPS.
“We surround Iran presently, and we’re going to be there for a long time, and they’re going to be there for a long time, and there’s a sense that now we’re neighbors,” says Sick. “That realization has given strength to those who want a more businesslike relationship” while making the decision to supply emergency aid “a natural response.”
Key members of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) who visited Teheran over the past several months echo that view. “The Americans view Iran as part of the ‘axis of evil’, while we view Iran as a strategic partner,” said Mowaffak Rubaie, a Shia IGC member featured in Newsweek recently as an emerging political heavyweight.
The IGC demanded the expulsion last month of members of the Mojahadin-e- Khalq (MEK), an Iranian guerrilla group based in Iraq whose forces have been detained but only partially disarmed by the US military. The State Department regards the MEK as a terrorist group, but neo-conservatives in the Pentagon and Vice- President Dick Cheney’s office reportedly favor holding it in reserve for possible future use against Teheran.
Well before the earthquake, moves towards détente evoked concern, sometimes outrage, from neo-conservatives who have, like Israel’s Likud Party, long regarded Iran as a strategic threat greater than Iraq.
On the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, the Washington Times and other publications, they have mocked Europe’s plans for freezing Iran’s nuclear ambitions as naive and commercially motivated.
They see Armitage as an appeaser out of touch with Bush’s democratic ambitions for the region. They seized on allegations by former FBI director Louis Freeh that Iranian officials financed and directed the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia that killed 12 US nationals, and now claim that Osama bin Laden is operating in Iran as a guest of the Revolutionary Guard.
Last week the National Unity Coalition for Israel, a group consisting mainly of Jewish neo-conservatives and activists in the Christian Right movement, published a full-page ad in the New York Times. The advertisement placed a photograph of Khatami alongside those of bin Laden, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il and the “apprehended” Saddam Hussein under the headline: “May God bless President Bush in his efforts to make the world safer for all of us.”
To the growing frustration of the neo-conservatives, none of this appears to be having the desired effect on the administration. That leaves them to place their hopes increasingly on the hardliners in Teheran who still consider dealing with the “Great Satan” anathema.
(Inter Press Service)