Iran Simmers as a Hot US Political Potato

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Jim Lobe 

Amid growing contention among Democratic presidential contenders about US policy toward Iran, a senior Republican lawmaker has appealed to President George W Bush to pursue "direct, unconditional, and comprehensive talks" with Tehran.

The appeal, which was sent to Bush by Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel two weeks ago, noted that Washington's diplomatic efforts to use economic pressure to persuade Iran to freeze its nuclear program were "stalling" amid "growing differences with our international partners" that are likely to continue widening.

Unless there is a strategic shift," according to Hagel's letter, which was also sent to other top administration officials, including Pentagon chief Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, "I believe we will find ourselves in a dangerous and increasingly isolated position in the coming months."

"Now is the time for the United States to actively consider when and how to offer direct, unconditional and comprehensive talks with Iran," it went on, adding that such a move should be combined with continued efforts with US allies to press Iran through economic sanctions, including a third United Nations Security Council resolution.

"An approach such as this would strengthen our ability across the board to deal with Iran," it went on. "Our friends and allies would be more confident to stand with us if we seek to increase pressure, including tougher sanctions, on Iran. It could create a historic new dynamic in US-Iran relations, in part by forcing the Iranians to react to the possibility of better relations with the West."

The letter, which was disclosed by Steven Clemons, director of the national strategy program at the New America Foundation, on his influential blog,, comes amid increased speculation over the likelihood of a US military attack against Iran next year.

Speculation about such an attack - against either the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) units alleged by Washington to be involved in directing attacks by Tehran-armed Shi'ite militias against US soldiers and marines in Iraq or Iran's suspected nuclear facilities, or both - has escalated sharply since Bush himself raised the threat of a "World War III" if Iran obtains even the knowledge needed to produce a nuclear weapon.

Several days later, Vice President Dick Cheney, in a speech to a hawkish pro-Israel think-tank, the Washington Institute for Near Policy, warned Tehran of "serious consequences" if it did not freeze its nuclear program and accused it of "direct involvement in the killings of Americans".

"We will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon," he declared to applause in what several informed observers characterized as a clear escalation from previous administration officials that an Iranian nuclear weapon was "unacceptable".

In addition to the harsher rhetoric, Congressional analysts noticed the insertion of an US$88 million request in the $200 billion 2007 supplemental defense bill to modify B-2 Stealth bombers so that they can drop a "Massive Ordnance Penetrator", a conventional "bunker-busting" bomb designed to destroy targets that are buried deep underground, in response to "an urgent operational need from theater commanders".

The only logical target for such a weapon in the current geostrategic climate, according to most defense analysts, would be Iran's suspected nuclear sites.

All of these moves, as well as the administration's issuance last week of new regulations that gave it the authority to impose sweeping financial sanctions against foreign companies and banks doing business with the IRGC, which itself owns a large economic empire in Iran, have propelled Iran to the center of the 2008 presidential race.

While the major Republican candidates, including front-runner Rudi Giuliani, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and Arizona Senator John McCain, have been at least as hawkish as the administration on Iran - indeed Giuliani's foreign policy team is dominated by neo-conservatives who have openly called for attacking Iran if it does not freeze its nuclear program - Democrats have appeared somewhat more divided.

Frontrunner Senator Hillary Clinton has been the most hawkish to date. Of the four serving senators in the Democratic race, she was the only one who voted this month for a resolution co-sponsored by the two honorary co-chairs of the neo-conservative Committee on the Present Danger, Senators Joseph Lieberman and John Kyl, that urged Bush to list the IRGC as a "terrorist" organization. The resolution passed 76-22, with Democrats roughly evenly split on the measure.

The other Democratic candidates have assailed her vote, claiming that it could be used by the administration to justify a cross-border attack on IRGC bases that could precipitate a larger conflict.

Since the vote, Clinton has repeatedly tried to reassure voters that her vote should not be construed as justifying war with Iran, going so far as to co-sponsor another bill that would require Bush to seek Congressional approval before taking major military action against Tehran.

At the same time, most of the Democratic candidates, including Clinton, have repeatedly stressed their support for diplomatic engagement with Iran beyond the very narrowly focused dialogue carried out - and never formally terminated - between Washington's and Tehran's ambassadors in Baghdad last summer on stabilizing Iraq.

Hagel, who has been very critical both of the Bush administration's performance in Iraq and the threats and bellicose rhetoric it has used against Iran, is the first nationally prominent Republican senator to call for unconditional talks with Tehran on an entire range of issues, including its nuclear program, an issue on which the administration has ruled out any talks unless and until Tehran freezes its uranium-enrichment program.

A decorated Vietnam veteran who, until last spring, was himself considered a credible presidential candidate, Hagel has been a favorite of the "realist" foreign policy establishment that believes the Iraq invasion was a major strategic blunder and that strongly opposes the neo-conservative and other hawks, who, within the administration, are led by Cheney's office.

While he has been far more outspoken than his Republican colleagues, his views are believed to reflect those of a number of other senior party lawmakers, including the top Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committees, Dick Lugar and John Warner, respectively. Lugar and Warner were the only Republicans present to vote against the Lieberman-Kyl resolution that was supported by Clinton.

His views are also believed to reflect those of Gates and most of the Pentagon's top brass, even including the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen. According to Clemons, the chief of the US Central Command, the top military commander in the Middle East/Gulf region, Admiral William Fallon, also sent Hagel a letter of appreciation after receiving a copy of the senator's letter.

While Hagel has announced he will retire from politics at the end of his term, he is due to deliver a major policy address - most likely an elaboration on his letter - at one of Washington's most influential national security think-tanks, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, next week.

In the letter, Hagel argued that the administration was unlikely to be able to maintain international support for US policy in major part because of "concerns [among US allies and partners] that the United States' actual objective is regime change in Iran, not a change in Iran's behavior."

"If this continues, our ability to sustain a united international front will weaken as countries grow uncertain over our motives and unwilling to risk open confrontation with Iran, and we are left with fewer and fewer policy options," he wrote.


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