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December 9, 2008

Hawks Campaign to Preempt Iran Talks


by Ali Gharib

Anticipating the ascent of President-elect Barack Obama to the Oval Office, groups of hawks, among them neoconservatives, have begun to offer public advice on just exactly what the new administration should do to deal with Iran.

Accusing Iran of a covert plan to pursue nuclear weapons under the guise of peaceful ambitions, most Washington voices advocate a policy of preventing the Islamic Republic from getting the bomb. But the substance of those policies varies widely.

While Obama has spoken of meaningful engagement without taking any options off the table, Iran hawks, often skeptical of diplomatic efforts, advocate tough sanctions and, in some instances, military strikes to dissuade Iran's leaders from their ambitions.

"There seems to be a general consensus that if you don't want war, you got sanctions," said Gary Milhollin, who founded the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, a Washington-based, nonprofit research group operated under the auspices of the University of Wisconsin.

"Meaningful, onerous, strong sanctions are the only threat to the regime," he said at a Heritage Foundation forum – one of Milhollin's two appearances at major right-wing think tanks here last week.

The government- and private foundation-funded Project houses IranWatch.org, a self-proclaimed "comprehensive repository of open source information about Iran's suspected mass destruction weapon programs."

IranWatch.org, according to Milhollin at his other appearance at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI), estimates that Iran will have the fissile material to fuel a nuclear bomb within a few months. He said it was a "safe assumption" that Iran is ready for weaponization.

But not everyone on the AEI panel was certain that sanctions could stop Iran from acquiring the bomb.

"The only thing that stands between Iran and nuclear weapon is the potential use of military force," said John Bolton, an AEI senior fellow and George W. Bush's former UN ambassador.

Bolton, however, thinks a U.S. strike is unlikely given the current political transition, leaving Israel as the only country to potentially attack the Iranian nuclear program – a scenario Bolton refused to "handicap" due to Israel's own political uncertainty with elections slated for February.

"Absent the possibility of Israeli use of force," he said, Iran would soon have a nuclear weapon. "We are going to have to deal with a nuclear Iran because everything else has failed."

"I've been working on this sucker for eight years," he said. "We've lost this race."

But not everyone on the two panels was as resigned to an Iranian bomb as Bolton.

Jim Phillips, a Heritage senior research fellow on the Middle East, reiterated Milhollin's calls for more "sticks" – punitive sanctions – against Iran, stating that Iran's "Achilles' heel" is its "erratic economy."

The case for strong sanctions was consistently made with urgency because of progress in Iran's nuclear program.

The campaign to sway the administration away from negotiations with Iran is predicated on two interrelated factors: Iran's progress toward a "nuclear breakout," and the futility of talks with Tehran.

The former talking point was hammered home by Milhollin and echoed by a press release form the neoconservative Committee on the Present Danger (CPD), a group of mostly hard-line hawks co-chaired by former President Ronald Reagan's secretary of state, George Shultz, and former CIA chief Jim Woolsey.

The CPD release on Thursday brings attention to a report from the anti-proliferation Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) announcing that, based on the latest figures, Iran could "generate enough low enriched uranium for one bomb in roughly four months."

"Here's hoping the incoming administration is paying attention," concluded the statement.

The neoconservative faction, despite being few in numbers, exercises an outsized influence on both conservative and, to an extent, liberal governments through a combination of shrewd alliances and public exposure via their ample media presence.

Even when out of government, as in the 1990s or their expected eviction from State and Defense Department positions, neoconservatives have pushed their agenda publicly by forming organizations such as CPD today, or the Project for a New American Century (PNAC) – a group instrumental to the Iraq War push – in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Their campaigns, such as the buildup to the Iraq invasion and the push against negotiations with Iran, are highly coordinated efforts in which numerous players parrot each other's talking points.

Take, for example, the recent anti-engagement campaign's talking point on the futility of talks with Iran.

On Dec. 2 at AEI, Bolton said that the debate about negotiations was over because they were a failure.

Then on Dec. 4 at the Heritage foundation, Phillips said that the diplomatic track was not encouraging because Iran has a revolutionary Islamic government that is concerned with ideology rather than the Iranian peoples' national interest.

The week before, AEI resident scholar and Iran expert Michael Rubin – who recently authored a hawkish report on the U.S.' upcoming Iran policy for the Bipartisan Policy Council signed by, among others, Obama Middle East adviser Dennis Ross – wrote an article for the Web site of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a congressionally funded international news outlet.

"If all diplomacy required were Washington's good intentions, the world would be a magical place," Rubin wrote. "It is ironic that some U.S. diplomats trust the Islamic republic more than many Iranians themselves do."

"[T]he impediment to engagement lies not in Washington but in Tehran. … [A]s Obama will learn when he assumes office, Iranian officials often approach diplomacy insincerely."

Again on Dec. 2, Phillips, in a paper he co-wrote for Heritage [.pdf], said Iranian diplomacy is characterized by "religiously sanctioned … dissimulation or duplicity."

But Hillary Mann Leverett, who has been physically at the table with the Iranians representing the U.S. over the past decade and is a strong proponent of a "grand bargain" comprehensive rapprochement strategy for Iran, says that such characterizations are "not based on anything real."

"To me that's just racist. There's nothing in the historical record to support that," Leverett told IPS. "The lie that they're hagglers in the bazaar and can't be trusted is the same sort of anti-Semitic stuff you hear about Jewish people."

"Iranians brought people to the table who were authoritative," she said of the four major rounds of talks with Iran since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, including those she was party to. "What was asked of the Iranians was, for the most part, delivered."

(Inter Press Service)

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  • Ali Gharib writes for Inter Press Service.

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