What is the Bush administration up to in Iran? And what, if anything, does it have to do with the fate of Neoconservative/Right Zionist foreign policy initiatives?
The first thing to note is that “open source” (media-based) analysis of Bush administration policy toward Iran has been complicated by lots of mixed signals. It wasn’t long ago that all the chatter was about impending nuclear strikes on Iran. Remember that? It was only about two months ago that Seymour Hersh published “The Iran Plans” in the April 17, 2006 issue of the New Yorker.
Now fast forward to the June 1, 2006 New York Times report by David Sanger, “For Bush, Talks With Iran Were a Last Resort.”
After 27 years in which the United States has refused substantive talks with Iran, President Bush reversed course on Wednesday because it was made clear to him â€” by his allies, by the Russians, by the Chinese, and eventually by some of his advisers â€” that he no longer had a choice…
[A]fter five years of behind-the-scenes battling within the administration, Mr. Bush finally came to a crossroads at which both sides in the debate over Iran â€” engagers and isolaters, and some with a foot in each camp â€” saw an advantage in, as one senior aide said, “seeing if they are serious.”…
But three officials who were involved in the most recent iteration of that debate said Mr. Cheney and others stepped aside…
In the end, said one former official who has kept close tabs on the debate, “it came down to convincing Cheney and others that if we are going to confront Iran, we first have to check off the box” of trying talks.
A little more than a week later, Right Zionist (so-called Neocon) verdicts are in. Over at the American Enterprise Institute, the reviews are quite negative. The Forward quotes AEI’s Michael Rubin:
“The administration can’t have it both ways. They can’t embrace the regime and still talk about liberty for the Iranian people,” said Iran analyst Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank widely associated with the push for regime change in Iraq. A former Pentagon official, Rubin added that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice “can spout whatever platitudes she wants to spout, but at this point, when it comes to liberty and freedom, she has no credibility.”
In a Weekly Standard missive, Rubin suggests, “the Bush administration is in full retreat” even as “rich Saudi and Persian Gulf financiers work to consolidate the region as a jihadist base.”
AEI’s Michael Ledeen also seems unhappy. In his recent National Review Online column “Iran Connects the Dots,” Ledeen slams the idea of Iran diplomacy.
The intelligence community was savaged after 9/11 for its failure to connect the dots, and it would be truly embarrassing, and very dangerous, to leave the Iranian dot out there apart from the rest of the network we have uncovered and shattered. A week ago Director of National Intelligence Negroponte gave a very interesting interview to the BBC in which he reiterated what everybody knows: â€˜(the Iranians) are the principal state sponsor of terrorism in the world.â€™
So how come weâ€™re not going after them?
And for those who think the recent â€˜weâ€™ll-talk-if-you-stop-enrichmentâ€™ gambit was some sort of master diplomatic stroke, consider this: it turns out that the Iranians have actually increased their enrichment program.
There is no escape from the necessity of bringing down the mullahcracy, for they will keep killing our people and our friends.
It may be worth noting, however, that Reuel Marc Gerecht–also at AEI–seems not to have chimed in yet on the Rice initiative. One Gerecht missive in the Weekly Standard–published before Rice announcement of a shift toward direct talks with the Iranians–predicts that such an initiative would fail.
Even if the secretary still has strong “realist” instincts–she is, after all, a disciple of Brent Scowcroft, Bush One’s national security adviser, and she is surrounded in the State Department by foreign service officers who live to negotiate–it won’t matter. The Iranians won’t play ball.
But Gerecht also seems less certain than Rubin or Ledeen about the immediate prospects for regime change in Iran.
No matter what happens, it is long overdue for the Bush administration to get serious about building clandestine mechanisms to support Iranians who want to change their regime. This will take time and be brutally difficult. And overt democracy support to Iranians–which is the Bush administration’s current game plan–isn’t likely to draw many recruits. Most Iranians probably know that this approach is a one-way invitation to Evin prison, which isn’t the most effective place for expressing dissent. However we go about assisting the opposition, the prospects for removing the regime before it acquires nuclear weapons are slim.
Gerecht’s pessimism regarding regime change in Iran seems like a retreat from some of his earlier confidence.
And then there are prominent Neocon figures like Charles Krauthammer who–as I noted in a previous post–have been more forgiving of the Bush administration’s attempt at diplomacy.
There is probably something to the Forward headline that suggests, “Bush Overture To Iran Splits Israel, Neocons.”
The basis of any such split may center on the best way for the US to rebuild its alliance with Iran. By contrast, Right Arabists–including many who talk very tough on Iran–do not favor any serious US alliance with Iran and did not support the US tilt toward Iran during the 1970s. For reasons that I have explained in previous posts and in my ZNet article–“Beyond Incompetence: Washington’s War in Iraq“–Right Zionists favor a tilt toward Shiite power–and an assault on Sunni Arab power–in the Gulf; Right Arabists oppose such a shift.
Some “Right Zionist history” may help make the point: way back on July 19, 1988, Michael Ledeen–famous for his involvement in the Iran-Contra affair–published an Op-Ed in the New York Times entitled “Let’s Talk With Iran Now” (I couldn’t find an on-line copy. Link anyone?). Here are some excerpts of his position at that time:
The United States, which should have been exploring improved relations with Iran before… should now seize the opportunity to do so. To wait might suggest to even pro-Western Iranians that a refusal to seek better relations is based on an anti-Iran animus rather than objections to specific Iranian actions.
Those Iranians who have been calling for better relations with the West have clearly been gathering strength… Among the advocates of such improved relations are two leading candidates to succeed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini: Ayatollah Hojatolislam Rafsanjani and the Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri…
Yet there has been no sense of urgency among our top policymakers to design and conduct a policy toward Iran–in part because our top officials, traumatized by the Iran-contra scandal and the hearings and investigatiosn that followed, were determined to to be caught dealing with the Iranians…
Yet past mistakes should not prevent the Administration from pursuing the clear chance for a potential breakthrough in one of the more strategically sensitive areas of the world.
Same theme, again, in a February 1, 1991 Wall Street Journal Op-Ed, “Iran–Back in the Game,” as the US waged war against Iraq.
Iran is once again a player in the Great Game, even to the point of being able to contemplate territorial acquisitions of its own once Iraq has been defeated…
Iran will be seated at the table when the new Middle Eastern order is designed at war’s end, and it will not be easy for the U.S. to know how to deal with it. For there is no country in the world that American diplomats have shunned so totally, indeed avoided so compulsively, as Iran. We have done so primarily for political reasons; ever since the Iran-Contra affair, no American leader has wished to be caught talking to an Iranian, even though many recognized the many sound geopolitical reasons for dealing with Iran.
It would have been wiser to have dealt with the Iranians earlier, but we now have little choice in the matter. Our contacts will surely increase, and President Rafsanjani and company will likely sit at the postwar negotiating table, thereby producing the great historical irony that Saddam Hussein, the conqueror of Persia, will have forced us to resume sensible relations with a reemerging Iran.
You get the point. No mention of the liberty of Iranians or the mullahcracy here. The significance is not that Ledeen is caught changing his position. The reals significance is that Ledeen may not actually have changed his central goal–a US alliance with Iran.
So, the real question is why isn’t the current prospect of dialogue with Iran the culmination of Right Zionist regional ambitions? The US is, after all, contemplating a tilt toward Iran–having already empowered Shiites in Iraq. Are those real Right Zionist tears in the eyes of Rubin and Ledeen?
If so, the tears are probably shed on account of tactical, not strategic defeats.
Here is the tactical question: Any Bush administration dialogue with Iran will be with Ayatollah Hojatolislam Rafsanjani, one of the two figures Ledeen identified as an advocate of “improved relations” back in 1988. Rafsanjani successfully pushed aside the other leading figure–Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri–who now sits in Iran under house arrest. When Ledeen dismisses dialogue with Rafsanjani and advocates regime change, what he really means is that he has now taken sides within the Shiite revolution: He favors Montazeri, not Rafsanjani.
Take a look, for example, at the transcript of this Brit Hume Fox News interview with Michael Ledeen from May 1, 2002 (I couldn’t find a copy on-line. Link anyone?):
HUME: Now, we look from this country at Iran. And we see it pretty much through a glass darkly. We see these statements coming out of their leading religious figure who outranks and has more power than any of the secular leaders there. And we think, uh oh, this is getting worse over there. Is it?
LEDEEN: No, it’s getting better because the people really are in insurrection, virtual insurrection, against the regime right now. What Supreme Leader Khomeini is reacting to with all these speeches in the last couple of days is a fatwa issued by probably the most respected religious leader in the country, Ayatollah Montazeri.
HUME: Now, I’ve heard of him, the Ayatollah Montazeri, or Montazeri as we American hicks sometimes are prone to say. Is not Khomeini the ranking leader, though? Isn’t he the guy with the title?
LEDEEN: Khomeini runs the country. He runs the government.
HUME: Right. And so Montazeri has standing by virtue of what?
LEDEEN: By his religious authority and his apparent saintliness and the respect of the people. And he’s been voted by the other ayatollahs to be the grandest of the so-called grand ayatollahs. So, he sits atop that whole religious structure, even though he sits atop it at home under house arrest.
HUME: And what did he say? He said — he issued a fatwa, a religious decree, last week saying that suicide terrorism was in absolute violation of the rules of Islam and that people who practiced suicide terrorism, instead of going to heaven with the 72 virgins, would go to hell, where for all eternity they would have to repeat their suicide.
HUME: And the importance of this beyond the clerical disagreement between two mullahs?
LEDEEN: No, it’s a division within the religious authorities within the country. And Montazeri is aiming it far beyond the boundaries of Iran. He is aiming it at the Islamic world entirely.
HUME: So his word would be heard across Islam?
LEDEEN: Yes. And it was coordinated with other ayatollahs, Iranian Shiite ayatollahs living in Europe. So, it wasn’t just restricted to Iran.
HUME: We never heard a word about it here.
LEDEEN: No, it’s not reported. I mean, it was reported in one or two Iranian publications. And here and there, you can find it on the web. But it was not picked up here.
HUME: And we Americans should regard this as a consequential event because of what consequences?
LEDEEN: But it shows that the authority that’s being claimed by the tyrants in Tehran is not being enforced and that the people of Iran, including some of the most important religious leaders, are in open rebellion against that regime. And we should support them.
Next thing to look for, if the dialogue with Rafsanjani breaks down? How about talk of a budding alliance between Montazeri in Iran and Sistani in Iraq?
[Update: Ledeen’s full-throated, June 7, 2006 criticism of Bush administration “appeasement” of Iran is HERE]