Communicating with Iran

May 29, 2007 | AIJAC staff

Update from AIJAC

May 29, 2007
Number 05/07 #10

Today’s Update leads with two pieces dealing with both sending messages to Iran, and understanding what they are telling us in reply.

First up is former CIA Middle East aalyst Reuel Marc Gerecht discussing the signals Iran is sending to the US and the West, especially through the arrest of visiting Iranian-American academic Haleh Esfandiari. Gerecht says the arrest of Esfandiari is almost certainly a signal to the US that Iran is uninterested in the sort of dialogue many people assume it must want and a message from Iran’s clerical rulers that they alone define the terms of engagement for any dialogue. The only solution, he says, is to assume that there is no interest in serious dialogue as long as she is imprisoned. For Gerecht’s analysis, CLICK HERE.

Next up is a Washington Post editorial which effectively lays out the fact that inspections and limited sanctions have so far been ineffective in stopping Iran’s nuclear program. It also raises the issue of Esfandiari, and after looking at the alternatives others urge, argues that the only way forward must be the sort of much tougher sanctions sought by the Bush administration and designed to target Iran’s petroleum sector. In addition, it notably takes to task International Atomic Energy Agency head Mohamed ElBaradei for his public stance demanding the UN Security Council simply abandon its past binding resolutions barring Iran from enriching uranium. For the Post’s complete argument, CLICK HERE.

Finally, a story from Britain’s Guardian reveals that US officials are bracing for an Iranian-sponsored summer offensive in Iraq, involving both al-Qaeda and Sunni elements and Teheran’s Shia militia allies, designed to convince the US Congress to pull all American troops out of Iraq. The officials interviewed also reveal Iran’s training of Iraqi insurgents inside Iran, and Teheran’s growing cooperation with al-Qaeda. Further, the piece discusses Syria’s role of acting as Iran’s ally by being the conduit for up to 90% of foreign insurgents in Iraq. For all the details, CLICK HERE.

Prisoner of Her Desires        

By Reuel Marc Gerecht

New York Times, Publication Date: May 24, 2007

In the United States and in Europe, there is a widespread belief that the Bush administration has failed to engage Iran diplomatically. Among the advisers to the Iraq Study Group, of which I was one, most believed that the Bush administration, not the mullahs’ regime, was the most culpable party in foreclosing dialogue between Washington and Tehran after 9/11.

Iran’s American-educated longtime ambassador to the United Nations, Javad Zarif, has tirelessly suggested that the administration missed opportunities for improving relations and is tone-deaf to his country’s peaceful intentions.

Yet it ought to be clear that just the opposite is the case. The clerical regime today is no more interested in reaching a peaceful modus vivendi with the United States than it was in the 1990s, when President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright all but begged President Mohammad Khatami of Iran to just talk to them.

Since the Germans and the French first introduced the idea of “constructive engagement” with Tehran in the early 1990s, Iran has consistently checked any Western effort to have a meaningful “dialogue of civilizations.”

Case in point: Haleh Esfandiari, an American citizen and the director of the Middle Eastern program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, has been jailed in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison since May 8. For years, she has been an articulate and determined advocate of better relations between her homeland, Iran, and her adopted country.

Just as the former Representative Lee Hamilton, the head of the Wilson Center and the co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group, has advocated a “diplomatic offensive” toward Tehran, Mrs. Esfandiari has assiduously practiced micro-diplomatic soft power, using the Wilson Center as a bully pulpit for reconciliation. Suspicious, cynical, hawkish and religiously oriented analyses of the Islamic Republic–my school of thought–have not been commonly heard at the Wilson Center under Mrs. Esfandiari and Mr. Hamilton.

In Iran, too, Mr. Hamilton and his Iraq Study Group co-chairman, James Baker, are seen as America’s über-engagement proponents. Mrs. Esfandiari had traveled to Iran frequently in recent years and was, on a smaller scale, viewed in a similar way. By arresting her during a visit to her 93-year-old mother, the clerical regime sent a blatant message to Mr. Hamilton about the effectiveness of engagement. He responded with a private letter to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, asking him to allow her to leave the country. Instead, she is behind bars, described by Tehran as an agent of regime change, an “American-Zionist” spy.

It is undoubtedly the Hamilton connection and her marriage with an Iranian-born Jew–a sin under Islamic law for a Muslim woman–that made Mrs. Esfandiari such an irresistible target for a regime fond of taking hostages to intimidate its enemies.

The clerical regime doesn’t play fair: A 67-year-old woman who has over the years shown Iran’s representatives in the United States and other visiting Iranians, including esteemed clerics, the utmost kindness and respect is a perfect target to show the regime’s distaste for Iranians who want to build bridges.

Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence, which has dueled with the Central Intelligence Agency for 20 years, knows the difference between real, on-the-payroll “traitors” and those the regime just dislikes and labels as spies. It undoubtedly knows Mrs. Esfandiari isn’t working on some regime-change plot masterminded by Langley or the Mossad.

Mrs. Esfandiari’s arrest is what you could call “clerical engagement”: Iranians and Americans are meant to (re)learn that the ruling clergy exclusively defines the terms of engagement. “Mutual interest,” something Mr. Hamilton repeatedly insists the United States and clerical Iran share, isn’t a phrase I’ve seen used by Ali Khamenei, Iran’s virulently anti-American and anti-Semitic ultimate leader. Messrs. Hamilton and Baker raised the fearful (to the clerical regime) specter of an America eager to embrace the Islamic Republic. The mullahs, in a very personal, Iranian way, have replied.

Since the Germans and the French first introduced the idea of “constructive engagement” with Tehran in the early 1990s, Iran has consistently checked any Western effort to have a meaningful “dialogue of civilizations.” Little harmless things are possible–Western scholars attending academic conferences; Western-Iranian sporting events that the mullahs care little about–but nothing that challenges the regime’s core beliefs and mission. The humbling of the United States remains the raison d’être of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s children, who still see themselves as the vanguard of a militant Islamic world.

Since the summer of 1999, when Iran’s reformist student movement was crushed by the security services, European investment in Iran has grown rapidly, by the tens of billions of dollars. As the money flows in, the clerical regime has harassed and murdered lay and clerical dissidents, exiling some of its most trenchant critics abroad or sending them to jail. Expanding commercial contacts, the Europeans had argued, was supposed to open up Iran and moderate its leadership. Messrs. Baker and Hamilton, and much of the “realist” camp in the Democratic and Republican Parties, have essentially made the same argument.

The clerical regime, however, knows what Italian city-states and the Ottoman Empire knew well: you can trade with and concurrently try to vanquish your enemy. Europeans and many Americans are enraptured by the idea that commerce and capitalism make friends out of enemies, a view that conveniently allows one to spend less on defense and practice a more friendly foreign policy.

Advocates of engagement don’t want to see that for Iran’s ruling clergy there is no fundamental contradiction between seeking trade deals with Boeing and Exxon and also bombing American troops in Saudi Arabia, abetting the movement of Al Qaeda’s holy warriors (see the 9/11 commission report) and exporting explosive devises to Iraq to kill American and British soldiers.

Many Iranians feel ashamed about the Islamic revolution’s violent excesses, which were particularly bad 25 years ago when I was a student of Mrs. Esfandiari and her husband, Shaul Bakhash. However, the two never failed to point out the basic decency and beauty of their homeland and of the men and women who made the Iranian revolution. Now the revolution’s ugliness has again pre-empted the country’s goodness by brutalizing a woman who has done as much as any Persian poet to show Islamic Iran’s complex, rich humanity.

It will be interesting to see whether Mrs. Esfandiari’s large network of moderate friends–Iranian scholars, ambassadors and clerics–can activate the traditional Persian way of posht-e pardeh, “politics behind the curtain,” to free her. Evin is a terrible place to wait long.

As for the Western powers, they should recall that Ronald Reagan’s finest moments came when he saw that the struggles of Soviet dissidents should be at the forefront of American-Soviet relations. The liberation of one individual should sometimes define a nation’s foreign policy.

If the Europeans are wise, they’d ensure that no discussion with the Iranians on any subject occurred without highlighting the plight of Mrs. Esfandiari. She indefatigably made European arguments about the need and effectiveness of soft power; they should just as indefatigably defend her.

Neither the Europeans nor the Americans will find any common ground with the clerical regime as long as Mrs. Esfandiari languishes in prison. Until she is freed, it will remain clear that the regime understands nothing other than brute force.

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a resident fellow at AEI.


Next Step on Iran

The Western campaign to stop Iran’s nuclear program still isn’t working.

Washington Post, Sunday, May 27, 2007

AS THE U.N. Security Council’s latest deadline for Tehran to suspend uranium enrichment passed last week, U.N. inspectors reported that 2,100 centrifuges were operating or under construction at the Natanz plant, more than triple the number of three months ago. Iran is on track to reach its stated goal of 3,000 operating centrifuges by sometime this summer; a plant of that size, if used to produce highly enriched uranium, could supply enough for a bomb in about a year. While openly defying the Security Council, the mullahs have begun taking de facto American hostages. Five U.S.-Iranian citizens are now reported in detention, including Woodrow Wilson Center scholar Haleh Esfandiari, a leading advocate of dialogue between the United States and Iran.

While Iran remains implacably belligerent, Western governments — and the Bush administration itself — are divided about how to proceed. Some U.S. officials seem to take their cue from Vice President Cheney’s recent visit to one of the aircraft carriers cruising the Persian Gulf; military action against Iranian nuclear facilities, they say, cannot be ruled out. Others press for an expansion of the contacts that have begun between U.S. and Iranian officials on Iraq, which will continue with a meeting of ambassadors in Baghdad tomorrow. For his part, the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, has begun arguing that the Security Council should simply concede that its three legally binding, unanimous resolutions ordering an end to Iranian enrichment have been “overtaken by events” and that it should give up the effort to enforce them.  

None of these options look workable. Military action against Iran would be a desperate and probably ineffective measure. Barring an emergency, the Bush administration should not undertake it. While dialogue with Iran on Iraq is worth pursuing, there’s no reason to abandon the administration’s position that the opening of broader, strategic negotiations with Tehran should depend on a suspension of enrichment. Having sought such U.S. recognition for decades, the Islamic regime should not receive it in response to aggressive and illegal behavior. Finally, we can only marvel at the nerve of Mr. ElBaradei, an unelected international civil servant whose mission is to implement the decisions of the Security Council — and who proposes to destroy the council’s authority by having it simply drop binding resolutions. Were it to do so, any chance to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons through diplomacy would be lost.

Unsatisfying as it sounds, there is no better alternative than returning to the Security Council, as the administration says it will do, and forging another resolution with tougher sanctions. Iran is vulnerable to economic pressure. Its oil industry counts on foreign investment, and the automobiles that choke its cities are mostly fueled by imported gasoline. Sanctions that put real pressure on the Iranian economy, combined with a continuing offer of expanded trade and security guarantees when the nuclear program is suspended, might still crack Iran’s hard-line posture. In the absence of such action, the options of surrender or war will only gain ground.


Iran’s secret plan for summer offensive to force US out of Iraq

Simon Tisdall

The Guardian
Tuesday May 22, 2007

Iran is secretly forging ties with al-Qaida elements and Sunni Arab militias in Iraq in preparation for a summer showdown with coalition forces intended to tip a wavering US Congress into voting for full military withdrawal, US officials say.

“Iran is fighting a proxy war in Iraq and it’s a very dangerous course for them to be following. They are already committing daily acts of war against US and British forces,” a senior US official in Baghdad warned. “They [Iran] are behind a lot of high-profile attacks meant to undermine US will and British will, such as the rocket attacks on Basra palace and the Green Zone [in Baghdad]. The attacks are directed by the Revolutionary Guard who are connected right to the top [of the Iranian government].”

The official said US commanders were bracing for a nationwide, Iranian-orchestrated summer offensive, linking al-Qaida and Sunni insurgents to Tehran’s Shia militia allies, that Iran hoped would trigger a political mutiny in Washington and a US retreat. “We expect that al-Qaida and Iran will both attempt to increase the propaganda and increase the violence prior to Petraeus’s report in September [when the US commander General David Petraeus will report to Congress on President George Bush’s controversial, six-month security “surge” of 30,000 troop reinforcements],” the official said.

“Certainly it [the violence] is going to pick up from their side. There is significant latent capability in Iraq, especially Iranian-sponsored capability. They can turn it up whenever they want. You can see that from the pre-positioning that’s been going on and the huge stockpiles of Iranian weapons that we’ve turned up in the last couple of months. The relationships between Iran and groups like al-Qaida are very fluid,” the official said.

“It often comes down to individuals, and people constantly move around. For instance, the Sunni Arab so-called resistance groups use Salafi jihadist ideology for their own purposes. But the whole Iran- al-Qaida linkup is very sinister.”

Iran has maintained close links to Iraq’s Shia political parties and militias but has previously eschewed collaboration with al-Qaida and Sunni insurgents.

US officials now say they have firm evidence that Tehran has switched tack as it senses a chance of victory in Iraq. In a parallel development, they say they also have proof that Iran has reversed its previous policy in Afghanistan and is now supporting and supplying the Taliban’s campaign against US, British and other Nato forces.

Tehran’s strategy to discredit the US surge and foment a decisive congressional revolt against Mr Bush is national in scope and not confined to the Shia south, its traditional sphere of influence, the senior official in Baghdad said. It included stepped-up coordination with Shia militias such as Moqtada al-Sadr’s Jaish al-Mahdi as well as Syrian-backed Sunni Arab groups and al-Qaida in Mesopotamia, he added. Iran was also expanding contacts across the board with paramilitary forces and political groups, including Kurdish parties such as the PUK, a US ally.

“Their strategy takes into account all these various parties. Iran is playing all these different factions to maximise its future control and maximise US and British difficulties. Their co-conspirator is Syria which is allowing the takfirists [fundamentalist Salafi jihadis] to come across the border,” the official said.

Any US decision to retaliate against Iran on its own territory could be taken only at the highest political level in Washington, the official said. But he indicated that American patience was wearing thin.

Warning that the US was “absolutely determined” to hit back hard wherever it was challenged by Iranian proxies or agents inside Iraq, he cited the case of five alleged members of the Revolutionary Guard’s al-Quds force detained in Irbil in January. Despite strenuous protests from Tehran, which claims the men are diplomats, they have still not been released.

“Tehran is behaving like a racecourse gambler. They’re betting on all the horses in the race, even on people they fundamentally don’t trust,” a senior administration official in Washington said. “They don’t know what the outcome will be in Iraq. So they’re hedging their bets.”

The administration official also claimed that notwithstanding recent US and British overtures, Syria was still collaborating closely with Iran’s strategy in Iraq.

“80% to 90%” of the foreign jihadis entering Iraq were doing so from Syrian territory, he said.

Despite recent diplomatic contacts, and an agreement to hold bilateral talks at ambassadorial level in Baghdad next week, US officials say there has been no let-up in hostile Iranian activities, including continuing support for violence, weapons smuggling and training.

“Iran is perpetuating the cycle of sectarian violence through support for extra-judicial killing and murder cells. They bring Iraqi militia members and insurgent groups into Iran for training and then help infiltrate them back into the country. We have plenty of evidence from a variety of sources. There’s no argument about that. That’s just a fact,” the senior official in Baghdad said.

In trying to force an American retreat, Iran’s hardline leadership also hoped to bring about a humiliating political and diplomatic defeat for the US that would reduce Washington’s regional influence while increasing Tehran’s own.

But if Iran succeeded in “prematurely” driving US and British forces out of Iraq, the likely result would be a “colossal humanitarian disaster” and possible regional war drawing in the Sunni Arab Gulf states, Syria and Turkey, he said.

Despite such concerns, or because of them, the US welcomed the chance to talk to Iran, the senior administration official said. “Our agenda starts with force protection in Iraq,” he said. But there were many other Iraq-related issues to be discussed. Recent pressure had shown that Iran’s behaviour could be modified, the official claimed: “Last winter they were literally getting away with murder.”

But tougher action by security forces in Iraq against Iranian agents and networks, the dispatch of an additional aircraft carrier group to the Gulf and UN security council resolutions imposing sanctions had given Tehran pause, he said.

Washington analysts and commentators predict that Gen Petraeus’s report to the White House and Congress in early September will be a pivotal moment in the history of the four-and-a-half-year war – and a decision to begin a troop drawdown or continue with the surge policy will hinge on the outcome. Most Democrats and many Republicans in Congress believe Iraq is in the grip of a civil war and that there is little that a continuing military presence can achieve. “Political will has already failed. It’s over,” a former Bush administration official said.

A senior adviser to Gen Petraeus reported this month that the surge had reduced violence, especially sectarian killings, in the Baghdad area and Sunni-dominated Anbar province. But the adviser admitted that much of the trouble had merely moved elsewhere, “resulting in spikes of activity in Diyala [to the north] and some areas to the south of the capital”. “Overall violence is at about the same level [as when the surge began in February].”

Iranian officials flatly deny US and British allegations of involvement in internal violence in Iraq or in attacks on coalition forces. Interviewed in Tehran recently, Mohammad Reza Bagheri, deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs with primary responsibility for Iran’s policy in Iraq, said: “We believe it would be to the benefit of both the occupiers and the Iraqi people that they [the coalition forces] withdraw immediately.”


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Malaysian PM Anwar with the late Iranian President Raisi in Kuala Lumpur, November 2023 (Image: Facebook/Anwar Ibrahim)

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