Pressure Grows on Bush to Engage Iran Directly

The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush is under increasing pressure – both here and abroad – to engage Iran in direct talks despite the continued opposition of pro-Israel neoconservatives and Vice President Dick Cheney.

In recent weeks, a growing number of prominent Republicans, as well as Democrats, have been urging Bush to pursue face-to-face negotiations on a range of issues.

At the same time, Washington’s European allies, which have acted as the administration’s surrogates in talks with Iran on its nuclear program for the last three years, are rapidly losing patience with what they increasingly see as U.S. intransigence.

"The Europeans are jumping up and down telling the U.S. it’s time to engage," said Charles Kupchan, director of European Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in Washington.

"If the United States doesn’t engage in some sort of negotiation, the likelihood of a major bust-up across the Atlantic is very high," he added.

Some signs that the pressure is being felt in the White House emerged here this week when Bush’s new spokesman, Tony Snow, told reporters Washington may be willing to talk directly with Iran about its nuclear program if Tehran suspends its uranium enrichment activities.

"When that happens … then there may be some opportunities [for discussions]," he said, suggesting that any such contact would likely take place within a larger multilateral context, presumably involving at least the EU-3 (Britain, France, and Germany), and possibly Russia and China.

Diplomats from those five powers met with their U.S. counterparts in London this week in an effort to fashion a new package of carrots and sticks that they hope will persuade Iran to halt its enrichment activities as a first step toward an agreement that would ensure that Tehran could not build a nuclear weapon.

The package is likely to include providing Iran with light-water nuclear reactors, trade, and other economic incentives, and discussion of a "framework" to address Iran’s security concerns.

According to published reports, however, U.S. diplomats opposed inclusion of the last item on the agenda, apparently due to a continuing impasse within the administration between Cheney and his allies, who favor "regime change," and other officials, notably in the State Department, who believe that goal to be both unrealistic and possibly counterproductive.

"Security guarantees are not on the table," one anonymous "senior State Department official" told Thursday’s New York Times, which also noted that the Europeans have advised Washington that, in the absence of such guarantees by the U.S., Tehran is unlikely to make concessions on its nuclear program

The administration, which in 2002 labeled Iran a charter member of the "Axis of Evil," has pushed for the UN Security Council to approve sanctions against Iran for alleged violations of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

While the European members of the Council have generally backed the effort, Russia and China, concerned about both the impact of such a resolution on their own strategic and commercial interests and the possibility that Washington could use Iran’s refusal to comply with its terms to justify an eventual military attack – much as it did in Iraq’s case three years ago – have dragged their heels.

Even the Europeans, however, are skittish about the kinds of sweeping sanctions, such as a ban on imports of gasoline or exports or Iranian oil and gas, that Washington wants to see imposed, according to Kupchan. He predicted that transatlantic unity will remain strong through the imposition of "light sanctions," such as bans on arms sales and visas for Iranian leaders, but is likely to "disappear" beyond that, particularly if the U.S. resorts to military force.

"At the end of the day, the U.S. wants regime change, and the EU doesn’t," he said, adding that an eventual resort by Washington to military action against Iran had virtually no support in Europe. "I have yet to find a European policymaker who thinks war is preferable to a nuclear Iran."

But it is not only Washington’s European allies, Russia, and China that are urging Bush to change course by engaging directly with Tehran. Other key regional allies, including Saudi Arabia and Turkey, have made similar appeals.

Here at home, Bush, already battered by record-low approval ratings, is also under pressure from some fellow Republicans.

In the last two months, two former political appointees who served in top State Department officials in Bush’s first term, Middle East specialist Richard Haass and former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, called for talks on the full range of issues – including Iran’s nuclear program, its alleged support for terrorism, and its regional policies that Washington finds objectionable – that have separated the two countries since 1979.

They have been joined by the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Dick Lugar, and Sen. Chuck Hagel, a possible Republican presidential candidate in 2008, as well as a number of prominent Democrats, including Bill Clinton’s national security adviser, Sandy Berger, and secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, and influential lawmakers, such as Sens. Joseph Biden and Dianne Feinstein, both considered pro-Israel moderates in the party.

Perhaps most impressive, former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, who supported Bush’s invasion of Iraq, also called earlier this month for direct negotiations with Iran, at least over the nuclear issue, which he argued in a lengthy Washington Post column was too important to U.S. security to be "negotiate[d] through proxies, however closely allied."

These appeals have also been bolstered by signals, including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s unprecedented letter to Bush – which, according to Kissinger, may have been designed "to get the radical part of the Iranian public used to dialogue with the United States" – that Iran itself favors direct talks.

That interpretation of Iran’s intent has since gained credence by the publication in Time magazine of a two-page memorandum by Hassan Rohani, the chief national security representative of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on a proposed solution to the nuclear issue. Messages have also reportedly been sent to U.S. officials through intermediaries by the chairman of the Supreme National Security Council, Ali Larijani, regarding Tehran’s willingness to engage in comprehensive talks.

Against this tide, neoconservatives, whose influence in the administration runs chiefly through Cheney’s office, have been fighting back, warning that direct talks with Tehran would be a trap from which Washington would find it difficult to extricate itself and declaring that recent ethnic unrest inside Iran showed that its population was ready to rise up against the regime.

"The question before the world now is: Can Iran be coerced by any means short of force [to halt its nuclear program]," wrote David Frum of the American Enterprise Institute. "There’s only one way to find out – and it is not by talking."

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.