Condi’s Careful Steps

By Kenneth R. Timmerman | May 4, 2007

In Washington, the Party of Surrender continues to blast the Bush administration for missing opportunities for Peace in Our Time. They would like Condoleeza Rice to become their Neville Chamberlain and come back from Egypt, where she is expected to meet her Iranian counterpart today, waving the “Grand Bargain” towel.

Just days after their Easter recess trip to Damascus, which was condemned (in diplomatic terms) by the State Department as “unhelpful,” Speaker Pelosi and House Foreign Affairs committee chairman Tom Lantos announced that they were ready to fly to Tehran to open a “dialogue” with Iran’s leaders.
“Speaking just for myself, I would be ready to get on a plane tomorrow morning, because however objectionable, unfair and inaccurate many of (Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's) statements are, it is important that we have a dialogue with him,'' Lantos told the San Francisco Chronicle.
It’s unclear what Mr. Lantos or Ms. Pelosi want to talk about with the Iranian leadership, unless it is the terms of America’s surrender. I say this not out of disrespect, but from sheer bewilderment.
I also mention it because Condi is not far behind them in her desire to open a dialogue with Tehran’s leaders and strike a deal, although she knows that she is walking on eggs.
Her caution was on display as she prepared to fly to Sharm el Sheikh this week, after intense speculation (fueled by President Bush, among others) that she would have a face-to-face meeting with her Iranian counterpart.
“I'm not going there to have a bilateral with the Iranians or a bilateral with the Syrians. I'm going there to meet with neighbors about the future of Iraq and trying to help the Iraqis,” Rice said.
It is no secret that Condi is desperately seeking some way of  convincing Iran’s clerical leadership to freeze its military nuclear programs, ends its armed intervention in Iraq, and curtails its support for terrorists from Afghanistan to Gaza, and beyond.
All these are worthy goals. And the U.S. is willing to pay a very high price to achieve them through diplomacy.
For well over a year, the U.S. was even willing to overlook Iran’s bad behavior in Iraq as a price for getting the nuclear deal.
Indeed, as Bob Woodward revealed in his latest book, State Department Counselor Philip Zelikow learned that the Iranian government was supplying weapons and cash to the insurgents during a fact-finding mission to Iraq in September 2005, but advised Rice to keep this information under wraps.
Zelikow was worried that the Iranian action was “arguably an act of war against the United States,” and that if the U.S. revealed what it knew, “the administration might well start a fire it couldn’t put out.” And so the U.S. put a cork on what it knew about Iranian support to the insurgency until last December. (More about this in my upcoming book, Shadow Warriors.)
Last year at this time, Condi made the Iranian regime a “take it or leave it” offer. If only they would freeze their nuclear programs, open their facilities to verifiable inspections, and clarify past discrepancies (ie, lies) in their statements to the International Atomic Energy Agency, then the United States and its partners would offer a rich series of benefits to the regime.
Tehran rejected that deal resoundingly. In response, the United States, working through the Permanent 5 members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (the “P5 +1”), made good on its pledge and gradually ratcheted up diplomatic and economic pressure on Tehran through two UN Security Council resolutions.
In addition, and to greater effect, the Treasury department negotiated a series of bilateral economic agreements aimed at scaling back foreign investment in Iran and Iran’s access to international financial markets.
State Department officials believe that the Iranians “are very much feeling the pressure,” and have taken actions  in response to that pressure.
“Has it succeeded? Not yet. But we remain committed to diplomacy and will continue to increase the pressure,” one official told me yesterday.
He expected a new round of sanctions at the United Nations following the next 60 day reporting deadline (May 25) on Iran’s compliance with the UN demands.
All of these steps for increasing the pressure on the regime are useful and good – not because they have any hope of success, but because eventually, at some point, one of two things will happen: the United States and the Europeans will wake up to the fact that the regime in Tehran will not change its behavior through diplomacy, or we will simply throw in the towel out of weariness and let them acquire nuclear weapons.
Exactly how has the Islamist regime in Tehran reacted to the steady uptick in outside pressure since it rejected the P5 +1 offer last August?
-         Iran has stepped up uranium enrichment, and recently declared that it had “joined the nuclear club.”
-         Iran has stepped up its aide to insurgents in Iraq
-         Iran has now begun to ship weapons to the Taliban in Afghanistan, as Gen. Peter Pace revealed last month.
-         Iran has re-armed Hezbollah in Lebanon, and has expanded its military and financial assistance to Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza and the West Bank.
-         It took 15 British sailors and Marines hostage in March, and kidnapped a retired FBI special agent and continues to hold him hostage.
That’s a record of defiance second to none.
Advocates of the grand bargain, such as Robert Litwak of the Woodrow Wilson Center, use this apparent “failure” of U.S. coercive diplomacy to urge direct engagement with Tehran. That’s somewhere between appeasement and surrender, depending on the term of the engagement.
“As with Libya, a credible U.S. assurance of regime security would be central to any nuclear deal, Litwak argued. “The Bush administration must make clear that it would be willing to take yes for an answer. A major question is whether the administration's regime-change rhetoric has priced Washington out of the reassurance market in Tehran.”
While Litwak is correct that the regime is seeking security guarantees as the ultimate U.S. concession (and why should we even think of offering them?), the history of the regime’s negotiating strategy clearly shows that they will take any Western concessions as a sign of weakness and simply stall for more time until they have acquired the bomb.
The State Department’s strategy of changing the regime’s behavior through conventional diplomacy is competent and well-crafted; but it will fail, because the regime in Tehran is not a conventional regime. It does not respond to the pressure points the diplomats know how to squeeze.
“In Tehran, Condi’s willingness to meet with [Iranian Foreign Minister] Mottaki has sent a clear message: we won. The bullies won,” says Iran analyst Shahriar Ahy.
“Instead, the U.S. needs to say that the regime caved, and that pressure is working. That could change the atmosphere,” he added.
Instead of giving in, the U.S. should use the single most important and most effective weapon in our diplomatic arsenal: aid to the people of Iran.
“Until now, the West has been squeezing the billiard ball,” Ahy said. “And they don’t have the foggiest idea if that external pressure will translate into internal pressure.”
Reza Pahlavi, the son of the former shah, told the Hudson Institute last month that external pressure won’t change the regime’s behavior until the Supreme Leader “wakes up one morning with an even greater fear: seeing the Iranian people joining hands and rising up against his theocratic tyranny.”
When it came down to things that mattered, there was no point in opposing “regime change” to “behavior change,” as most foreign policy analysts tend to do, he argued.
“Those in Foggy Bottom who think they can make Ahmadinejad feel isolated simply cannot see the world through his eyes. Even if he felt isolated, it is doubtful he would change his behavior. Even the threat of force is not enough to sway someone whose deepest beliefs welcome Armageddon – to expedite the return of the twelfth Imam, his messiah!” he said.
In fact, the same set of policies that will lead to a change of behavior on the part of Iran’s current leaders, will also ultimately lead to a change of regime, Pahlavi argued. But so far, the U.S. has refused to implement them.
“The Departments of State and Defense were not structured to help “velvet” revolutions, which have been the most significant patterns of positive change in the world since the Cold War,” he said. “The problem is that the US does not have a third foreign policy department; one that understands, and can deal, with the peoples of the transitional world, not just their failed states.”
Pahlavi provided a detailed roadmap for how the United States and other interested parties could help social and professional groups in Iran as they step up their struggle for a free Iran.
A key element, he said, was media “that can connect Iranian activists inside Iran with each other….[T]there are a thousand circles of protest in Iran, but no nationwide medium to connect them. Since the government will not tolerate such a medium inside Iran, it has to be done from outside.”
Neither the Voice of America, the BBC, or the various “amateur” satellite TV stations in Los Angeles can fulfill this role, he added.
“What is needed is engaging programming that builds audience share by truly reflecting the needs, grievances and resistance of Iranian women, youth, ethnic groups and the professional groups. …That is what it takes to mobilize the Iranian people – without whom, we are back to war or surrender. “
The United States plans to spend $75 million this year to promote “civic education” in Iran. The overwhelming bulk of those funds – well over $50 million – will go to expand lavish, failed, amateurish TV programs run by the Persian service of Voice of America.
We have good alternatives to war or surrender. Time is running short to take them.