Iran simmers as a hot US political potato
By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON - 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
"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
The letter, which was disclosed by Steven Clemons, director of the national
strategy program at the New America Foundation, on his influential blog,
thewashingtonnote.com, 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
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
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,"