June 26, 2017

U.S., Iran Stall On Road to Rapprochement

Bush Administration Divided on How to Resolve Renewed Tensions Over Iraq, Nuclear Plans
The Wall Street Journal
May 12, 2003
By DAVID S. CLOUD

When the Bush administration this month asked the Iranian government through intermediaries to turn over Iraqi officials or terrorists who crossed into their territory, a U.S. official says Tehran’s reply was caustic: We had a deal to cooperate, and you haven’t lived up to it.

The Iranians were upset that Washington hadn’t followed through on prewar assurances that coalition forces invading Iraq would eliminate the Mujahedin-e-Khalq, an anti-Tehran militia group that for years has mounted cross-border attacks from Iraq.

The back-channel messages, which the official said were conveyed by British diplomats, show how a relationship that in some ways had been quietly improving after the war in Afghanistan has deteriorated since the invasion of Iraq. Now, U.S. officials accuse Tehran of sending agents to foment anti-U.S. sentiment among Iraq’s Shiite Muslims, continuing to back anti-Israel terror groups and stepping up a clandestine nuclear-weapons program.

How the U.S. — with thousands of troops on Iran’s western flank — confronts these issues has become a major foreign-policy question for the Bush administration. And the issue has revived an internal U.S. government debate about how to deal with Iran , a country the U.S. hasn’t had formal relations with since Islamic clerics took power in a 1979 revolution.

Some State Department officials argue that the best way to improve Tehran’s behavior, in addition to public pressure, is to quietly signal to people loyal to President Mohammad Khatami that Washington’s goals in the region don’t include the regime’s ouster. If the Iranians don’t feel threatened, these officials argue, they will be less apt to meddle in Iraq and may even decide that developing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles is less urgent.

That view isn’t shared by other administration officials. Some in the Pentagon and White House favor a more confrontational approach, based on their view that Iran’s hard-line clerics retain too much authority to abandon policies objectionable to Washington without sustained pressure. They argue for steps aimed at destabilizing the Iranian regime from within, including a proposed $50 million fund for pro-democracy radio and satellite broadcasts into the country by Iranian-Americans.

“America must abandon any talk of engaging the self-proclaimed reformers [in Iran ] who have not reformed the system in the seven years they have been in power,” says Sen. Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican who is pushing the broadcasting fund in Congress.

Leading up to the Iraq war, the White House was much more inclined to woo Tehran than it is now. Despite fears about Iranian meddling after the U.S. war in Afghanistan, Iran played a constructive role after that conflict, supporting Hamid Karzai’s fledgling government, said former State Department Afghanistan envoy James Dobbins.

U.S. officials hoped that would continue heading into the Iraq conflict. In January, White House aide Zalmay Khalilzad and State Department officials assured Iranian representatives at a meeting in northern Iraq that the imminent U.S. invasion wouldn’t threaten — and might even benefit — Tehran. The Iranians were told that one of the U.S. war aims was to eliminate the Mujahedin-e-Khalq, a longtime Iranian goal. In return, the U.S. asked Iran not to send armed fighters into Iraq, U.S. officials say. Neither side completely complied.

After the hostilities, the Pentagon negotiated a temporary cease-fire that confined the Mujahedin-e-Khalq to bases in eastern Iraq but allowed it to keep its weapons. The arrangement was described as temporary, but it stirred Iranians’ fears that the U.S. wanted the group intact to harass them in the future.

Pentagon officials wrote a memo last month suggesting that the White House could consider naming the Mujahedin-e-Khalq “a legitimate Iranian opposition group,” despite its status as a U.S.-designated terrorist group, according to a U.S. official who quoted from the document. A Pentagon spokesman denied the department had proposed the idea, but the group’s future was discussed at a senior-level meeting two weeks ago, officials said. The State Department’s top counterterrorism official, Cofer Black, argued that would undermine U.S. credibility when it asked other countries to crack down on terrorist groups. Mr. Bush sided with the State Department, and U.S. forces in Iraq now are moving to disarm and eliminate the Mujahedin-e-Khalq.

State Department officials say that decision at least in part is meant to reinforce the message that the U.S. isn’t looking to meddle inside Iran — just as Tehran shouldn’t interfere in Iraq.

But U.S. officials say Iranian Revolutionary Guards — militants loyal to Iran’s hard-line clerics — are seeking to play a role inside Iraq, both by infiltrating the country themselves and by working through Iraqi Shiite clerics, many of whom have spent years living in Iran . Even Iraqis whom the U.S. is counting on to play major roles in an interim Iraqi government have ties to Tehran. One U.S. official said Iranian agents are telling Iraqis that the U.S. doesn’t have the stomach for the long haul and will be gone soon. “The message is, ‘Don’t get too close to the Americans,’ ” the official said.

Mr. Bush hasn’t resolved the disagreement among his advisers, except to play down the option of using military force to achieve regime change in Iran . Secretary of State Colin Powell has little interest in attempting to hold direct talks with the Iranians, as he did recently with the Syrians. Officially, Iran continues to reject direct dialogue with the U.S., but Washington also has spurned what appear to be recent overtures from Tehran that seem to reflect hopes for better relations.

“We do have channels that we are using with the Iranians, and communicating to them that they ought to review their policies,” Mr. Powell told reporters during the weekend. He played down the prospect of seeking better ties with Tehran, though. “The issue of diplomatic relations is not on the table right now, on either side.”

Since the war ended, the administration has chosen a more confrontational path. Administration officials are trying to build support among governments that sit on the board of the International Atomic Energy Agency to condemn what the U.S. contends is Iran’s secret nuclear-weapons program. Iran says its nuclear activities are for peaceful purposes. U.S. officials acknowledge Iran is still years away from producing such weapons, but they say inspections of several facilities and other recently obtained intelligence have convinced the U.S. that Iran is working faster than previously known.

The U.S. has supplied Russia and other countries on the IAEA board with some of its intelligence, although a senior U.S. official says it remains unclear what findings the IAEA board will make when it meets next month. Imposing sanctions on Tehran through the United Nations Security Council for its nuclear activities will be difficult. Unlike Iraq and even North Korea, Iran has relations with many European countries and Russia, and their governments appear reluctant to jeopardize these ties by joining a campaign to isolate Tehran.

Complicating the policy debate is that U.S. officials are divided about how much of a threat such Iranian influence poses in Iraq. Some warn that Iran is trying to actively block U.S. hopes of installing a friendly regime in Baghdad. Israeli officials have told the White House that the same thing could happen to the U.S. in Iraq as happened to Israel’s troops in southern Lebanon during the 1980s and 1990s. There, Iranian-backed Hezbollah Shiite militants fought a guerilla war that ultimately drove out the Israelis.

But other U.S. officials argue that Iran is waiting to see how events unfold, and how much political power fellow Shiites will have in Iraq. And it is weighing whether the U.S. is plotting to oust them from power next, says a senior U.S. intelligence official. The more threatening the Bush administration appears to Iranian officials in coming months, “the more active Tehran will be in Iraq to try to keep us tied down so we can’t focus on them,” predicted a U.S. intelligence official.