WASHINGTON - Two of Washington's most prominent foreign policy graybeards
praised Saturday's direct participation in multinational talks with Iran by a
senior US diplomat, but called on the administration of President George W Bush
to drop his demands that Tehran freeze its uranium enrichment program as a
precondition for broader negotiations.
Retired General Brent Scowcroft, who served as national security adviser under
Republican presidents Gerald Ford and George H W Bush, and Zbigniew Brzezinski,
who held the same post under Democratic President Jimmy Carter, urged Bush to
go further by offering immediate rewards to Tehran in exchange for such a
And both men warned that repeated US threats to use military
force against Iran were counter-productive and strengthened hard-line forces in
the regime led by President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. They said an actual military
attack - whether by the US or by Israel - would likely be disastrous for US
interests in the region.
"A war with Iran will produce calamities for sure," said Brzezinski, who
pointed, among other things, to its likely impact on the price of oil and the
likelihood that it would create yet another front to add to the two wars - Iraq
and Afghanistan - in which US military forces are already engaged.
"[Brzezinski's assessment] may be a little more dire [than mine] but not much,"
Scowcroft said in a brief interview after the two men spoke at a briefing
sponsored by the Center for Security and International Studies (CSIS) in
Washington. "It would turn the region into a cauldron of conflict, bitterness,
and hatred. It would turn Islam against us."
Both men have been strongly critical of US policy in the Middle East,
particularly the decision to invade Iraq - although Brzezinski has been
considerably more vocal than Scowcroft, who remains a close friend of Bush's
father. Both leading lights of the so-called "realist" foreign-policy
establishment, they are currently collaborating on a book to be published in
Their joint appearance at CSIS, which was announced late last week after the
administration had confirmed that undersecretary of state for policy, William
Burns, would attend Saturday's meeting between the so-called "Iran Six" (the
five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany) and Iran, seemed
timed to demonstrate strong bipartisan support for continued and enhanced US
Burns' direct participation at the talks not only marked the highest-level
officially and publicly acknowledged meeting between the US and Iran since the
two nations broke off diplomatic relations in late 1979. It also appeared to
mark a potentially significant easing of previous administration demands that
Tehran suspend its uranium enrichment program as a condition for direct talks.
Coupled with reports that Washington plans to open an Interests Section in
Tehran, as well as a series of strong statements by the chairman of the Joint
Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, warning against the consequences of a
US or Israeli attack on Iran, Burns' presence was widely interpreted as a sign
that the administration has made a strategic decision to engage Iran
diplomatically, much as it did, beginning in late 2006, with yet another
charter member of Bush's "Axis of Evil", North Korea.
Indeed, hawks outside the administration who are nonetheless closely associated
with administration hardliners led by Vice President Dick Cheney have been
complaining bitterly about the decision to send Burns since it was announced.
The neo-conservative Weekly Standard called the move "stunningly shameful",
while former UN ambassador John Bolton said it was proof of the
administration's "complete intellectual collapse".
Similarly, the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, which has long urged
confrontation with Iran, has assailed the decision as foreshadowing "detente".
On Monday, it published a column by Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise
Institute (AEI) that charged Bush with "appeasing" Tehran and conducting
"diplomatic malpractice on a Carteresque level".
While these protests themselves constitute evidence that a strategic decision
to engage Iran in much the same way that the administration has dealt with
North Korea over the past 18 months - Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will
meet for the first time with her North Korean counterpart in Singapore later
this week - has indeed been made, many analysts remain uncertain.
The White House itself stressed that Burns' presence was a "one-time" affair.
And Rice, who, along with Pentagon chief Robert Gates, is seen as the
administration's main champion for engagement, followed up the meeting by
setting a two-week deadline for Tehran to respond to the P5+1's offer - the
so-called "freeze-for-freeze" - to forgo a fourth round of UN sanctions against
it if it refrained from adding new centrifuges to its enrichment program.
The group, she said, had sent a "very strong message to the Iranians that they
can't go and stall ... and that they have to make a decision," suggesting that
Washington would push for sanctions if Tehran does not provide a satisfactory
response by the deadline.
To some observers, both her tone and her words suggested that Rice herself
feels vulnerable, particularly given the failure of Iran's representative to
the Geneva talks, Saeed Jalili, to respond directly to the proposal on the
Scowcroft agreed on Tuesday that the Iranian response had indeed been
"disappointing" but also suggested that Rice's "rather sharp" remarks were
likely to strengthen hardliners in Tehran. Brzezinski also criticized Rice's
ultimatum, asserting that it was "not helpful to the negotiating process".
Scowcroft said Burns' presence in Geneva was "encouraging", while Brzezinski
called it a "very good step" but insufficient in itself to break the "logjam"
created by the administration's precondition for direct talks. They also
denounced the administration's repeated reminders that "all options remain on
the table" as counter-productive.
"It tends to push Iranians into a more nationalistic, dogmatic stance," said
Brzezinski, while Scowcroft said it offered only the "illusion of a clean
solution" to what is essentially "a very complicated diplomatic problem".
At the same time, they endorsed the use of sanctions as a means of pressuring
Iran, provided that they were coupled with incentives whose benefits to Tehran
would be clear and immediate in order to make it easier for the regime to make
concessions. "Give them a way out without losing face," Scowcroft said.
On speculation that Israel may be preparing to take unilateral military action
against Iran's nuclear facilities, Brzezinski said it would not be a "smart
strategic choice" due to the likelihood that the US would even become "more
bogged down" in the region. Scowcroft said he would tell the Israelis to "calm
Jim Lobe's blog on US foreign policy, and particularly the
neo-conservative influence in the Bush administration, can be read at http://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe/.