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April 19, 2006

Amid Threats, Some Republicans Seek Talks on Iran

by Jim Lobe

Amid a new escalation in threats between the United States and Iran over Tehran's nuclear program, some prominent Republicans are calling for the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush to engage Tehran in direct talks.

At the same time, indications that Tehran may itself be hoping to engage Washington have been growing steadily, despite the incendiary rhetoric of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad directed primarily against Israel, which Bush has pledged to defend.

Whether moderate voices in both capitals, as well as similar urgings by foreign powers that are increasingly worried about the regional and global repercussions of a possible U.S. attack on Iran, will prevail remains very uncertain, particularly given their history of mutual demonization since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

The current heated rhetoric between them makes the possibility of their sitting down together for a negotiation of all outstanding issues – along the lines of a much-talked-about "grand bargain" several years ago – appear more remote than ever.

Indeed, the rhetoric appeared to get even more heated Tuesday when Bush, asked explicitly about recent published reports that the U.S. is planning for a possible nuclear strike against targets in Iran, refused to rule it out, even as he stressed that his administration wants "to solve this issue diplomatically, and we're working hard to do so."

"All options are on the table," he declared in what one expert described as a virtually unprecedented threat by a U.S. president to use nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear state.

Bush's remarks followed a threat voiced earlier Tuesday by Ahmadinejad during an annual military parade. The Iranian army, he said, "will cut off the hands of any aggressors and will make any aggressor regret it."

In spite of the by now well-established cycle of threat and counter-threat, however, cooler heads from within ruling circles on both sides are raising their voices, particularly in the wake of alarming – though still unconfirmed – reports earlier this month that U.S. military planning for attacks, including nuclear strikes, against Iran has moved beyond its contingency phase.

Last week, for example, two former senior State Department officials who served during Bush's first term came out in favor of comprehensive negotiations with Tehran.

In a column published by London's Financial Times (FT), Richard Haass, who served as director of the Department's Policy Planning Office and was a top Middle East adviser to Secretary of State Colin Powell from 2001 until 2003, argued that an attack, particularly with nuclear weapons, would prove counterproductive to a range of U.S. interests and called for direct talks with Iran.

"Given [the] potential high costs [of an attack], Washington should be searching harder for a diplomatic alternative, one that entails direct U.S. talks with Iran beyond the narrow dialogue announced on Iraq," wrote the current president of the influential Council on Foreign Relations, in reference to Bush's decision earlier this year to authorize Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad to engage Iran in talks strictly limited to Iraq.

A possible deal, he went on, would permit Iran to retain a small, heavily monitored uranium enrichment program, in return for which it "would receive a range of economic benefits, security guarantees, and political dialogue."

Washington would have nothing to lose from such an exercise, said Haass, who also served as the top Middle East aide to former President George H.W. Bush during the first Gulf War. "Presenting a fair and generous offer would … make it easier to rally international support for escalation against Iran if diplomacy is rebuffed," he argued.

Haass' suggestions were echoed the next day by former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who told the FT that he, too, favored comprehensive talks with Iran. While he left the administration when Powell resigned, Armitage has long been a personal favorite of Bush's and is considered a leading candidate to succeed Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld if he resigns or is forced out.

"It merits talking to the Iranians about the full range of our relationship … everything from energy to terrorism to weapons to Iraq," Armitage said, adding that Washington could afford to be patient "for a while" because Tehran is still at least several years from obtaining a nuclear device.

On Sunday, the long-standing Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Richard Lugar, also weighed in on a much-watched public-affairs television program, ABC's This Week.

"I think that would be useful," he said when asked about the possibility of direct talks. He added that Washington should engage Iran about its role as a major energy exporter in particular, suggesting that the two countries have interests in common. "There are issues there," he said, "which ironically, we may come out on the same side with some of the Iranians."

While none of the three is considered part of Bush's inner circle, their views are taken seriously by many Republicans on Capitol Hill, particularly given the growing concern among the party's lawmakers that the situation in Iraq may cost it control of one or even both houses of Congress in the November elections.

"'Realists' like Armitage and Lugar have been vindicated by [events in] Iraq so their credibility has risen at the same time that Bush's and [Vice President Dick] Cheney's keeps falling," said one congressional aide whose boss is a Republican. "People are much more receptive to their views now even if they're still hesitant about speaking out."

Pro-dialogue forces also appear to be active in Tehran, even if they can hardly be heard over the more radical Ahmadinejad, who, despite his limited authority in foreign policy and the nuclear program, is largely depicted in the media here as the public face of Iran.

Thus former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was defeated by Ahmadinejad in last year's runoff elections but who nonetheless retains key posts in the regime, said just last week that the proposed talks between Iran and the U.S. over Iraq could lead to a more comprehensive dialogue. He also reportedly asked Saudi Arabia to help mediate between Tehran and Washington.

And in a move first reported by the FT but still shrouded in mystery, Mohammad Nahavandian, a senior aide to Ali Larijani, the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council who also serves as the regime's chief negotiator on nuclear issues, quietly visited Washington earlier this month, apparently, according to some sources, in hopes of establishing a back-channel to the administration.

Although U.S. officials initially denied any knowledge of his presence, one source told IPS this week that it prompted interagency consultations that ended when Cheney's office rejected the idea of meeting with him on the grounds that it would be a "sign of weakness." That account, however, could not be confirmed.

(Inter Press Service)

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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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