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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May 2004, page 35

Special Report

Neocons Battle Against U.S. Rapprochement With Iran

By Andrew I. Killgore

Bush administration “realists” and “neoconservatives” are engaged in a fierce internal debate over Iran’s overtures to improve relations with the United States, according to the March 17 Financial Times. Nearly two years ago, former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani suggested that Iran-U.S. relations could be put to a referendum—a move almost sure to win approval from the Iranian people.

What has since become known as Iran’s “grand bargain” was sent to the U.S. on May 4, 2003. According to the Iranian proposal, Tehran would address U.S. concerns over nuclear weapons and terrorism, coordinate policy on Iraq, and consider a two-state solution to the Palestinian conflict. For its part, Washington would lift sanctions, recognize Iran’s security interests and drop its “axis of evil” threat of a regime change.

Although he never commented on the grand bargain, Swiss Ambassador Tim Guldimann, who represents U.S. interests in Iran and conveyed the proposal to Washington, was rebuked by the Department of State for overstepping his mandate.

The “realists” named by the Financial Times were Secretary of State Colin Powell, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Robert Blackwill, strategic planner for the Middle East under Rice, former U.N. Ambassador Thomas Pickering, and Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser under President George H.W. Bush. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld opposes the grand design, as does Reuel Gerecht, Iranian expert at the right-wing American Enterprise Institute, writing in the periodical most beloved by neocons, the Weekly Standard.

Israel had a tacit alliance with Iran beginning in May 1972. At that time Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi envisaged a bigger role for Iran in the Middle East, but he needed American support to succeed. This he got through Israel, which needed a large Muslim—but non-Arab—ally in the region to counterbalance Arab preponderance in population. Iran was glad to secretly supply Israel with oil in exchange for arms and political support. This mutually beneficial arrangement lasted until February 1979, when the political cataclysm in Iran threw the shah out and the ayatollahs in.

According to the Financial Times, Rumsfeld can’t forgive Iran for the Hezbollah/Iranian bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, killing 241 Marines. The fact that the U.S. did not retaliate against the bombing left an impression of American weakness, in Rumsfeld’s view. This, in turn, he believes, led to the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon. Nor can Rumsfeld forget the American diplomatic hostages, who were held prisoner in Tehran for 444 days, from 1979 to 1981. Whether these tortured excuses are Rumsfeld’s real reasons for opposing reconciliation with Iran are debatable. As a certified neocon, after all, he seems to favor what Israel favors.

Rumsfeld would be joined by Vice President Dick Cheney; the powerful, hubristic Washington neocon/Zionist cabal; and, of course, by Israel. Sen. John Kerry, President Bush’s Democratic challenger-apparent, seems to have embraced the realist cause.

A lot is at stake for the neocons in this latest struggle—perhaps everything, in fact.

A lot is at stake for the neocons in this latest struggle—perhaps everything, in fact. If the United States reconciles with Iran, the oil pipeline from Baku, Azerbaijan to Ceyhan, Turkey, so passionately sought by Israel, would be in danger. The international oil companies operating in the Caspian Sea region immediately would push for a shorter and cheaper pipeline route—through Iran—to salt water.

Good U.S. relations with Iran, moreover, would mean that Israel finally had lost its permanent quest for the waters of Lebanon’s Litani River. The Jewish state simply “had” to have the water to survive, and Iranian support for Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shi’i political party/guerrilla group, made that impossible.

A decade ago, Israel and its friends in Washington launched a campaign to convince President Bill Clinton that Iranian support of terrorism and its military buildup endangered Western interests. Tehran’s support of “terrorism” really consisted only of support for Hezbollah against Israel’s illegal occupation of southern Lebanon.

The Israeli campaign succeeded in getting Congress to pass the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA), which placed American sanctions on any company expending more than $20 million on Iranian oil and gas development. It was all aimed at stopping Iranian support for Hezbollah.

During the Clinton administration, French, Russian and Malaysian oil companies signed a multi-billion dollar contract to develop Iran’s South Pars gas field. This was clearly a case where ILSA might have been invoked.

Clinton and his foreign policy brass met late into the night to consider the issue. Leon Fuerth, foreign policy adviser to Vice President Al Gore, argued passionately for invoking ILSA. In the end, however, President Clinton refused to go along, out of fear that the United States would be taken to task by the World Trade Organization—and that it likely would lose.

It is no accident that Iran has had several great empires in the past. The country is large—more than three times the size of Iraq and three times as populous—and with a tradition of empire. In other words, Iran is too big for the United States to push around. After a long delay, and now that Iran has agreed to unannounced inspections of its nuclear programs, Japan has just signed a contract with Iran to develop its very large Azadegan oil field,

In the case of Iran, therefore, the sanctions regime has failed. Military action against Iran is not in the cards—the United States does not have the necessary troops, being already stretched too thin in Iraq. We could bomb Iran’s nuclear program, but it is very scattered—and now that Iran has agreed to unannounced International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) inspections, we have no alternative but to, at least, wait.

So far, then, in the battle of the realists against the neocons, the realists appear to be winning.

Andrew I. Killgore is publisher of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, on Middle East Affairs.