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December 22, 2004

Hawks Plan 'Peaceful' Regime Change in Iran

by Jim Lobe

A heavyweight group of mostly neoconservative hawks has published a new proposal for Iran policy that relies heavily on "peaceful" strategies to achieve regime change, such as those used by Washington since the 1980s in Central and Eastern Europe, most recently in Serbia and Ukraine.

The group, the Committee on the Present Danger (CPD), targets Iran's Supreme Authority, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the theocratic apparatus that supports him in the paper titled, "Iran – A New Approach," and assumes, "Iran's people ... are our allies."

"They want to free themselves from Khamenei's oppression and they want Iran to join the community of prosperous, peaceful democracies," it says, characterizing its policy recommendations as a "peaceful but forceful strategy to engage with the Iranian people to remove the threat and establish the strong relationship which is in both nations' and the region's interests."

While reserving "the right to take out or cripple [Khamenei's] nuclear capabilities" if Tehran fails to comply with current agreements with Britain, France, Germany, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the paper strongly advocates a policy of people-to-people engagement – particularly for young Iranians who are seen as especially alienated from the regime – as well as greater use of television, radio, and the Internet to "communicate directly with the Iranian people."

It also calls for re-opening the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, which was closed 25 years ago after militants invaded the embassy grounds and took U.S. diplomatic personnel there hostage.

The plan does not address the possible use of covert paramilitary action against Iran's nuclear program or the regime, despite published reports that the administration of President George W. Bush has already authorized covert operations aimed at destabilizing the government. The paper's main author, Mark Palmer, told IPS on Tuesday such actions should not be necessary.

Palmer, a speechwriter for former President Ronald Reagan who also served as ambassador to Hungary and has been a tireless promoter of U.S. "democratic" assistance abroad, said some CPD members opposed the paper initially because it smacked too much of "engagement" with Tehran.

Among the most prominent members of the CPD, founded last summer as a lobby group designed to rally support behind the broadest aims of the "war on terrorism," are former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) chief James Woolsey; Center for Security Policy Director Frank Gaffney; former Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich; and a flock of other hawks from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), and other groups that beat the drums for war against Iraq before the US invasion in March 2003.

Until now, many CPD members have called for dealing with Iran, particularly its nuclear program, almost exclusively with isolation and confrontation, including military action.

"There was concern that [sending an ambassador to Tehran] would strengthen or legitimize the regime as it is," said Palmer, who characterized the two-month process that led to the paper's approval as a "vigorous discussion."

"Our view was that was too narrow a view," he added, noting that Washington had embassies in Soviet bloc nations in the 1980s but still supported democratic forces that led the mainly peaceful ouster of the Communist regimes there.

Palmer, whose recent book, Breaking the Real Axis of Evil: How to Oust the World's Last Dictators by 2025, has been greeted with considerable skepticism by regional specialists in academia and Washington think tanks, was strongly backed during the discussion by former Secretary of State George Shultz, who co-chairs the CPD along with Woolsey.

The fact that Shultz, seen by some analysts here as an eminence grise of the Bush administration, is backing the policy is especially significant. The taciturn diplomat, who introduced National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to Bush a year before the 2000 election and encouraged her to move to the State Department post in a second term, has also long championed one of her most influential advisors, Middle East director for the National Security Council (NSC), Elliott Abrams, as well as Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz.

Although Shultz's efforts to reach out to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s deeply disappointed prominent neoconservatives, he has taken a very hard line, generally consistent with their own, in the "war on terrorism."

Shultz, who co-chaired the short-lived Committee to Liberate Iraq, has been especially hawkish on terrorism since Washington's ill-fated intervention in Lebanon after Israel's 1982 invasion. The paper notes, "Iran under Khamenei," in addition to pursuing "regional hegemony" in the Middle East, "continues to be the world's foremost state supporter of terrorism."

It asserts that the regime's policies have led to "deep alienation" within Iran as demonstrated by the 1997 and 2001 elections for parliament and the presidency that reformists won by large margins, as well as the regime's resort to "hired paramilitary thugs" to quash student demonstrations in 2002.

Specific elements of a new U.S. policy, according to the paper, would include:

- A major policy address by Bush that would pledge to "reconnect with the Iranian people, to help the vast majority of Iranians who want democracy to achieve it ... to assure their security in return for not acquiring nuclear weapons and to help develop their economy";

- An announcement of U.S. willingness to re-open its embassy in Tehran and the designation of a senior official devoted to the coordination and implementation of the policy, including lobbying U.S. allies, speaking with Iranians via various media, and engaging with senior Iranian government officials, as opposed to "ordinary diplomats in the Foreign Ministry";

- Making clear that Washington will not accept Iran's possession of nuclear weapons and will back that up with force, presumably unilateral, if necessary;

- Supporting Iranian democrats and dissidents "to make clear that they are our partners in a new dialogue and that even as we meet with representatives of the Khamenei regime, we consider these to be illegitimate." Support would include sending Iranian activists abroad for short seminars with their counterparts, "who have been successful in organizing civic campaigns in Serbia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Chile, and elsewhere";

- Developing relations with the military and various other security services in Iran in order to undermine the regime's "pillars of support," and marshaling evidence for a legal case against Khamenei for indictment in an appropriate tribunal;

- Devising other "smart" sanctions to isolate the regime and its supporters, including the revolutionary foundations, or "bunyads," by publicly identifying companies and bank accounts controlled by them to highlight alleged corruption and prepare legal cases for economic crimes; and

- Attempting to launch a "dialogue with Khamenei and the clerics around him about how to arrange "a way to exit peacefully from political power, combined with indications of the alternatives (jail or hanging)."

"For too long, an academic debate over engagement versus containment, dialogue versus regime change has dominated and weakened America's approach to Iran," according to the report.

"The [CPD] believes that we need a new approach, one based on a sober recognition of the threat Khamenei presents, but also an appreciation of our new strengths and the opportunity before us."

One Iran specialist, William Beeman of Brown University, said he was "appalled" by the six-page paper.

"They have no idea about Iranian politics or governmental structure. They have decided for some bizarre reason to present Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as if he were some kind of Saddam-like dictator. I suppose this helps their audience fit the current Iranian governmental structure into a ready-made pigeonhole."

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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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