WASHINGTON - A new round in the ongoing battle between realists and neo-conservative and other hawks over Iran policy got underway here Monday as a task force of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) published a new report urging Washington to engage Tehran on a selected range of issues of mutual concern.
The task force, co-chaired by Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser under former President Jimmy Carter (1977-81) and including the head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) under past President George H W Bush (1989-93) argues that neo-conservative and other analysts who are urging that Washington pursue ''regime change'' in Iran underestimate the staying power of the current government there.
''Despite considerable political flux and popular dissatisfaction'', the 79-page report said, ''Iran is not on the verge of another revolution. Those forces that are committed to preserving Iran's current system remain firmly in control.''
The report, 'Iran: Time for a New Approach', also argues that Washington's invasion of Iraq, as well as Iran's rapid progress in developing possible nuclear-weapons capability, makes it more urgent than ever to resume and broaden bilateral talks that broke off 14 months ago.
But it stresses that a ''grand bargain'' to settle all outstanding conflicts between Washington and Tehran is unrealistic and that talks should focus instead on making ''incremental progress'' on a variety of key issues, including regional stability and Iran's nuclear ambitions.
The 21 task-force members also stressed that Washington offer fewer sticks and more carrots than in the past, suggesting, ''the prospect of (Iran opening) commercial relations with the United States could be a powerful tool in Washington's arsenal''.
The report's recommendations are considered anathema to the neo-conservative hawks closely associated with Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who led the drive to war in Iraq.
Indeed, its release was met with a furious attack by Michael Ledeen, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) who is particularly close to both former Defense Policy Board Chairman Richard Perle and Defense Undersecretary for Policy Douglas Feith, and who has long asserted that Iran is ripe for revolution by ''democratic'' forces that deserve U.S. support.
Ledeen, who considers Tehran the global capital of Islamist ''terror masters'', wrote in 'National Review Online' that the CFR recommendations were ''humiliating'' and constituted ''appeasement''.
They were made worse, he added, in light of leaks last weekend that the soon-to-be-released final report of the bipartisan commission investigating the Sep. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and the Pentagon will assert that Iran provided members of the al-Qaeda terrorist group, including some of the 9/11 hijackers, safe passage during the year before the attacks.
The point-counterpoint comes at a particularly sensitive moment in the evolution of U.S.-Iranian relations, which were formally broken off 25 years ago after militants captured the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held its diplomats hostage.
As noted in the report, the United States currently has about 160,000 troops -- 20,000 in Afghanistan and 140,000 in Iraq -- deployed just across the countries' borders with Iran, named by President George W Bush in 2002 as a charter member of the ''axis of evil'', along with Iraq and North Korea.
Reports over the past month that Israel may be planning a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities have added to existing tensions, particularly due to uncertainties regarding Tehran's dialogues over its nuclear program with Britain, France, Germany and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
These new factors have intensified the three-and-a-half-year old struggle within the administration between the hawks, particularly the neo-conservatives for whom the security of Israel is a core commitment, and the realists, who are led by Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Powell, in turn, is backed by a number of top alumni of past Republican and Democratic administrations, including Bush Sr's former national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, Brzezinski and Frank Carlucci, who served as national security adviser and Defense secretary for former President Ronald Reagan (1981-89) and also participated in the task force.
While the hawks dominated Middle East policy from Sep. 11 through the Iraq invasion, their star faded as that adventure came increasingly to resemble a quagmire, so that the realists appear to have gained the upper hand at the moment, at least as concerns Iraq.
The realists have also been strengthened by the perception that U.S. forces in the region, which seemed irresistible in the wake of the Afghan and Iraq campaigns, are now seen as much more vulnerable and thus less of a military threat to Iran than 14 months ago. ''Military action (is now) highly unlikely to be attempted, and, if attempted, to be successful'', Gates said Monday.
But if the internal balance of power on Iraq favors the realists, the situation regarding Iran is less clear. While few analysts believe Washington would launch a military strike on Tehran before the November elections, speculation that a second Bush term would make ''regime change'' in Iran a top priority has been persistent.
And forces in Congress that back Israel's governing Likud Party are already moving to endorse legislation that would officially endorse such a goal as official U.S. policy.
It is in this context that the task force, whose membership was convened by CFR's new president and former top Powell aide, Richard Haass, is calling for selective engagement with Tehran. ''The realistic alternative'', according to Gates, '' is U.S. isolation and impotence.''
The critical message is that neo-conservative claims that the Islamic Republic is on its last legs represent wishful thinking. Given Iran's ability to make trouble for Washington in both Iran and Afghanistan, as well as advances made in its nuclear program, the current situation ''mandates the United States to deal with the current regime rather than wait for it to fall'', argues the report, which recommends five specific steps.
First, the administration should offer Tehran a ''direct dialogue on specific issues of regional stabilization'', much as it did for 18 months between the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan and May 2003, when Washington accused Iran of harboring leaders of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda responsible for attacks in Saudi Arabia.
Second, Washington should press to clarify the status of al-Qaeda operatives detained by Tehran, in exchange for ensuring that the Iraq-based Iranian rebel group, Mujahedin-e-Khalq, is disbanded and its leaders brought to justice for terrorist acts. Any security dialogue, however, must be conditioned on assurances that Tehran is not providing support to groups violently opposed to the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Third, the United States should work closely with Europe and Russia to ensure Iran follows through on its commitment that it is not developing nuclear weapons by getting it to extend its freeze on all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities to a permanent ban and take other steps to guarantee compliance. In exchange, Washington should remove its objections to an Iranian civil nuclear program
Fourth, Washington should resume an active role in negotiating peace between Israel and the Palestinians, which the report says is ''central to eventually stemming the tide of extremism in the region''.
Finally, the administration should promote people-to-people and commercial exchanges between Iran and the wider world, including authorizing U.S. non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to operate in Iran, and agreeing to Iran's application to begin accession talks with the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Both Gates and Brzezinski said the administration should also use its influence to prevent a possible Israeli military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities, which, according to Brzezinski, would have ''extremely adverse consequences'' both for proponents of change in Iran and for the U.S. position in Iraq and Afghanistan, where Tehran could be expected to retaliate.
It would be impossible for Israeli warplanes to reach their targets without flying in air space controlled by the U.S. military, pointed out Brzezinski.
© Copyright 2004 IPS - Inter Press Service