Diplomatic Diary: Stymied By Iran

For an administration that likes to think of itself as straight-talking, there is something less than Texan about the way it handles Iran. One minute it's all apocalyptic and axis of evil. The next it's all nuance and inertia. One minute the president refuses to wait while dangers gather. The next he's hanging around for U.N. weapons inspectors to trawl for Iran's nukes.

By any measure, Iran deserves to near the very top of the foreign agenda. Iran has a hand in every hotspot the United States is trying to clean up: Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East. Moreover, it poses enough threats to earn priority status all on its own. During the run-up to the war in Iraq, senior U.S. officials repeatedly justified the conflict by describing what they called "the nexus" between terrorists and nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. If any regime brings together support for terrorists and the pursuit of such weapons, it's Iran. And unlike the current controversy about the pre-war intelligence on Saddam Hussein's weapons, there is a little room for dispute as to what Iran is up to. Iran is the biggest sponsor of terrorism in the Middle East, in the shape of Hizbollah in Lebanon as well as Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Palestinian territory. For good reason the State Department described Iran as "the most active state sponsor of terrorism" last year.

As for its pursuit of nukes, Iran claims to be building nuclear facilities for purely civilian purposes. In a country with vast oil reserves, that is an extraordinary claim which allows Iran to pursue nukes within the terms of international law. It's also unbelievable. Iran is constructing a huge uranium-enrichment plant at Natanz in central Iran, and a heavy water reactor near the city of Arak. Both sites were secret until they were recently uncovered by Iranian opposition groups and satellite imagery. And both are in addition to the supposedly safer light-water reactor being built with Russian expertise at Bushehr.

Yet current and former administration officials tell NEWSWEEK that the Bush administration has no clear idea about how to tackle Iran's twin threats of terrorism and nukes. They portray a policy process that is deadlocked by internal splits, and a lack of debate about fresh options.

Take the notion of talks with Iran. After the war in Afghanistan, and through the war in Iraq, senior U.S. officials established effective face-to-face contacts with the Tehran regime. Much of that dialogue focused on the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and U.S. officials credit their Iranian counterparts with supportive action on the ground. But those talks ended abruptly earlier this month, amid reports that Iran was harboring Al Qaeda terrorists. While the talks could start again at any point, senior officials say there seems little chance in the near future. "We were willing to have a limited technical engagement with the Iranians on Afghanistan, although the Pentagon never liked that idea," said Flynt Leverett, the president's former adviser on the Middle East, who left the White House earlier this year. "We were never willing to take it up to a really strategic level, and never even willing to offer that to the Iranians." One White House official said the administration had decided it was best not to discuss the dialogue that had been taking place in Geneva, Switzerland. "Our view is: the more we talk about this, the less helpful it is to us," said one.

Many conservatives inside the administration argue that such dialogue is useless, Clinton-era appeasement. In fact, the Clinton administration only offered the possibility of "normal relations" in 1998, and that offer was largely ignored. It followed a far tougher line of sanctions and containment from the mid-1990s--a policy that also failed, not least because Europe chose to trade and engage with Tehran.

That's not necessarily a morally abhorrent position. After all, it has long been U.S. policy to trade with China in the belief that economic ties lead to political and social reforms of an otherwise repressive regime. It also gives you many more options for action when the times get tough. Now that we know the ayatallohs are pursuing their own nukes, European nations have far more leverage by threatening to cut off trade with Iran.

Leverett argues that Iran is far better placed to engage with the U.S. today than it was five years ago. A majority of Iranians want to normalize relations with America, and some hardliners have said they are prepared to engage in some form of dialogue with Washington. Yet even dovish U.S. diplomats are not pushing for the Bush administration to engage with Tehran right now. "A couple of months ago, I would have said yes to talks," said one senior State Department official. "But the state of the relationship between the U.S. and Iran is such that I just don't know. There's a real question mark given what seems to be accurate revelations about the status of Iran's nuclear program. There's also their feelings of betrayal because of what the U.S. is trying to do in Iraq."

That policy vacuum is being filled by others in Washington who want to see something far more aggressive than the current wait-and-see approach inside the White House. On Capitol Hill, Republicans are agitating for the White House to take a far more active role in funding opposition media broadcasts, as the best way to support the students protesting for greater freedoms on Tehran's streets.

Then there are the well-connected conservatives outside the administration, who have created an umbrella group called the Coalition for Democracy in Iran. Raymond Tanter, a former Reagan White House aide who is one of the coalition's early supporters, believes the U.S. needs to use military force to help destabilize the regime. "I think within a year you'll have air strikes," he says. "But I don't anticipate a war to bring about regime change. You want to move in the same direction as the people who are moving to bring about a different regime, such as the students."

For the moment, the White House seems happy with a low-key approach. The president voices support for the students, while mid-level officials push for more weapons inspectors of Iran's nuclear sites. Few in or out of the administration believe either policy will be successful any time soon. But for those familiar with the debate inside the White House, America's policy on Iran is heading in one direction. "If things just drift the way they are now," says Leverett, "the trend over time will be toward regime change."

Diplomatic Diary: Stymied By Iran | News