Realists, Neocons in New Iran Argument

A new round in the ongoing battle between realists and neoconservative hawks over Iran policy got underway here Monday with the publication by a task force of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) of a new report urging Washington to engage Tehran on a selected range of issues of mutual concern.

The task force, which was co-chaired by former President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and the head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) under former President George H. W. Bush, argues that neoconservative and other analysts who are urging that Washington pursue “regime change” in Iran underestimate the staying power of the current government there.

“[D]espite 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 the rapid progress by Iran in developing a possible nuclear-weapons capability, makes it more urgent than ever to resume and broaden bilateral talks that were broken off 14 months ago.

It stresses, however, 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 the U.S. offer fewer sticks and more carrots than it has in the past, suggesting that the “the prospect of commercial relations with the United States could be a powerful tool in Washington’s arsenal.”

The report’s recommendations are considered anathema to the neoconservative hawks who are closely associated with Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and 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 (AEI) who is particularly close to both former Defense Policy Board Chairman Richard Perle and Defense Undersecretary for Policy Douglas Feith, and who has long asserted that Iran is ripe for revolution by “democratic” forces that deserve U.S. 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,” particularly in light of leaks this weekend that the soon-to-be-released final report of the bipartisan commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and the Pentagon will assert that Iran provided al-Qaeda members, including some of the 9/11 hijackers, safe passage during the year before the attacks.

The point-counterpoint comes at particularly sensitive moment in the evolution of U.S.-Iranian relations that were formally broken off 25 years ago after militants captured the U.S. 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 their 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.

At the same time, 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 Britain, France and Germany and with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

These new factors have intensified the three-and-a-half-year old struggle within the administration between the hawks, particularly the neoconservatives for whom the security of Israel is a core commitment, and the realists who are led within the administration 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 I’s former national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, Brzezinski, and Frank Carlucci, who served as Ronald Reagan’s former national security adviser and Defense secretary and also participated in the task force.

While the hawks dominated Middle East policy from Sept. 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 U.S. 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. “[M]ilitary action [is now] highly unlikely to be attempted, and, if attempted, to be successful,” Gates said 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. Meanwhile, pro-Likud forces in Congress are already moving to endorse legislation that would officially endorse such a goal as official U.S. 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 U.S. isolation and impotence…”

The critical message contained in them is that neoconservative claims that the Islamic Republic is on its last legs represent wishful thinking. Given Iran’s ability to make trouble for the U.S. in both Iran 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,” according to the report which recommends five specific steps.

First, it should offer Tehran a “direct dialogue on specific issues of regional stabilization,” much as it did for 18 months between the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan and May, 2003, when Washington accused Iran of harboring al-Qaeda leaders responsible for attacks in Saudi Arabia.

In that connection, according to Brzezinski, Washington might offer to sign a “basic statement of principles” similar to the 1972 Shanghai Communique between the U.S. and China that eventually resulted in normalization in 1979.

Second, Washington should press to clarify the status of al-Qaeda operatives detained by Tehran and in exchange for ensuring that the Iraq-based Iranian rebel group, Mujahideen-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 U.S. 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 is “central to eventually stemming the tide of extremism in the region.”

Finally, the U.S. should promote people-to-people and commercial exchanges between Iran and the wider world, including authorizing U.S. non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to operate in Iran and agreeing to Iran’s application to begin accession talks with the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Both Gates and Brzezinski said the Bush 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 U.S. position in Iraq and Afghanistan where Tehran could be expected to retaliate. Brzezinski pointed out that it would be impossible for Israeli warplanes to reach their targets without flying in air space controlled by the U.S. military.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.