Senate Foreign Relations
committee chairman Richard Lugar, R-Indiana, likes to portray himself
as a realist, not an idealogue.
After a recent Lugar speech on America's "addiction" to foreign oil, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman gushed that readers should "[d]rop what you are doing and read it."
But in his efforts to achieve a bipartisan approach toward Iran, Lugar has fallen for one of the oldest tricks in the Ayatollah's book. Speaking on ABC's "This Week" on April 17, Sen. Lugar opined that the United States should pursue direct talks with the Islamic Republic over its nuclear program. "I think that would be useful," he said. "The Iranians are a part of the energy picture. We need to talk about that."
He added that it was too soon to press for international sanctions aimed at putting pressure on Iran to comply with UN Security Council demands that it open its nuclear facilities to international inspection and come clean about suspected weapons programs. "I believe, for the moment, that we ought to cool this one, too," Lugar said. "We need to make more headway diplomatically."
Senator Christopher Dodd, D-CT, made it a duet. "I happen to believe you need direct talks. It doesn't mean you agree with them...But there's an option," Dodd said on the same program.
"Direct talks" with the Tehran regime are not just a bad idea. They are a monumentally bad idea, whose wrong-headedness has been proven time and again over the past¬Ý26 years.
And yet, even smart people -- such as Sen. Lugar -- fall for the idea that the Iranian leadership, in the end, is not all that different from us. They have security concerns, economic concerns, and political concerns. It's just a question of finding the right inducements, and then reasonable people can cut a deal.
Here is what Lugar said about Iran in the speech at Brookings that Tom Friedman found so illuminating.
At a time when the international community is attempting to persuade Iran to live up to its non-proliferation obligations, our economic leverage on that country has declined due to its burgeoning oil revenues. If one tracks the arc of Iran's behavior over the last decade, its suppression of dissent, its support for terrorists, and its conflict with the West have increased in conjunction with its oil revenues, which soared by 30 percent in 2005.
Iran literally has us over a barrel, Lugar argued. So we really aren't in much of a position to be talking tough with the ayatollahs (or the bearded boy president), unless we want to face $200-a-barrel oil.
The only problem with Sen. Lugar's analysis is that it is factually wrong. If one "tracks the arc of Iran's behavior over the last decade," one finds absolutely zero correlation between Iran's oil revenues and its bad behavior.
None. Nada. Zippo.
In fact, as Iran's oil revenues have skyrocketed over the past year, it has not (yet) resumed its practice of sending hit squads around the world to assassinate dissidents.
It began the assassinations in earnest in the mid-1980s, when oil had plummeted to all-time lows (below $10/barrel) and continued the murders until 1997. What compelled Iran to put its goons on a leash -- at least, overseas -- was the sentence handed down by a German court for the assassination of four Iranian Kurdish dissidents in Berlin's Mykonos restaurant five years earlier.
(By the way: the Austrian Interior Ministry is currently reviewing evidence that appears to confirm the personal involvement of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the 1989 murder of Iranian dissident Abdelrahman Qassemlou in Vienna).
As for repression at home, that continues apace. Whenever the Iranian people rise up, the regime squashes their movement with brutal force, whenever and wherever it feels it necessary.
How about Iran's nuclear programs? Haven't they benefited from skyrocketing oil prices? Undoubtedly. But the decision to pursue a clandestine program to master the uranium fuel cycle did not begin this past year, or in 2004, or 2003: it, too, was launched when oil prices were at their nadir, in 1985. The decisions to build big ticket facilities such as the Isfahan uranium conversion plant or the Natanz centrifuge enrichment plant were taken in the 1996 and 2000 respectively, when oil was running just over $20/barrel.
As Ayatollah Khomeini famously said, Iran's Islamic revolution "isn't about the price of watermelons." If it were, the clerics would have been long gone by now.
Lugar is not the first to suggest "direct talks" with Iran's clerical leadership. Jimmy Carter tried for two years during the hostage crisis. Ronald Reagan sent Ollie North, Howard Teicher, and Bud McFarlane to Tehran in 1986 with a bible and a cake. Bill Clinton was hoping to win the Nobel Peace Prize by personally traveling to Tehran during his final days in the White House, and had named a Special Ambassador, David Andrews, to negotiate a "comprehensive settlement" with Tehran, as I reveal in Countdown to Crisis: the Coming Nuclear Showdown with Iran.
All of these attempts failed. Iran's clerical leaders ate all the carrots, burped, and never even said "thank-you." And should we make similar offers today, they will do the same.
Zbigniew Brzezinski agrees with Sen. Lugar that the United States should "negotiate" with Tehran. In case some readers are too young to remember, Mr. Brzezinski was Jimmy Carter's National Security Advisor. His deep understanding of Iran gave us a 444-day hostage crisis that began on Nov. 5, 1979.
Despite this stunning proof of Mr. Brzezinski's policy acumen, many reasonable people still seek his counsel today. Together with Bush 41 National Security advisor Brent Scowcroft, Brzezinski authored a 2004 study on Iran for the Council on Foreign Relations, which urged the United States to craft a package of inducements for Tehran, including security guarantees for the regime.
During a Feb. 23, 2006 forum in Washington, D.C., with former German foreign minister Joschka Fischer, Brzezinski scolded Undersecretary of state Nicholas Burns for saying the U.S. would not restore diplomatic relations with Iran because it doesn't want to bestow legitimacy on the Islamic Republic.
Washington was talking directly to dictator Kim Jong-il. "Are we deliberately legitimizing the North Korean government?" Brzezinski asked. The real issue, he said, is the quest for nuclear weaponry, not the legitimacy of any regime.
Wrong, Mr. Brzezinski. And wrong, Sen. Lugar.
The real issue is not the quest for nuclear weaponry. If nuclear weapons were the problem, we'd be worried about Great Britain. Or India. Or Israel. Or France. (Okay, maybe we are just a little worried about France.)
The real issue is the regime; and this is the reality neither Sen. Lugar nor Mr. Brzezinski want to face.
Talking to this regime would, in fact, provide legitimacy for a band of international thugs who have broken every agreement they have ever made, and have never hesitated to use terrorists to accomplish their ends.
It would send a devastating message to the Iranian patriots who are begging America to help them bring freedom to their country.
It would undercut President Bush's visionary calls for spreading freedom to closed societies, as America's best defense and the world's brightest future. And it would guarantee that we would be facing a nuclear-armed Iran.
Surely Sen. Lugar can do better than this.