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As Obama Engages, Hawks Soften Rhetoric

Foreign policy hawks speaking at a recent American Enterprise Institute conference revealed a softening in their rhetoric toward Iran and expressed a willingness to engage the country.

(Inter Press Service)

As the White House prepares the ground for direct diplomacy with Iran on a handful of issues, a group of Iran hawks gathered in Washington last week to discuss their views on how to handle what they describe as a “series of provocative actions” by Tehran beyond its ongoing nuclear development.

Some of their comments revealed a willingness to engage and hesitancy to bomb Iran, possibly representing mainstreaming of their views.

But while U.S. President Barack Obama slowly works his way through the early phases of engaging Iran, some are also pushing to give him more sticks to wave over Iran’s head at the same time he offers carrots.

Congress is in the process of introducing bills that would give Obama the authority to impose extraterritorial sanctions by punishing foreign companies that sell gasoline and other petroleum products to Iran.

Late last month, the neoconservative-aligned Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and Rep. Mark Kirk (R-IL), a close ally of the so-called Israel lobby, both introduced sanctions legislation.

Speaking at an American Enterprise Institute (AEI) conference on Iran last week, Lieberman said his bill was “very similar” to Kirk’s and hoped that they would soon be combined into law, noting that he had the support of Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D-NV).

The bills were expected to receive the support of thousands of conference-goers at this week’s summit of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the most prominent organ of Washington’s powerful Israel lobby.

But for Lieberman and other neoconservatives who spoke on a panel following his remarks at AEI, endorsing talks with Tehran, even while introducing sanctions designed to give the president authority to “cripple” Iran, represents a softening of their stances.

Gone are references to an “evil” and “irrational” regime in Iran, as was the hawks’ blanket opposition to engagement during last fall’s campaign, based on the idea that diplomacy in general will do the unthinkable by strengthening and emboldening unsavory elements in Iran.

Even the new potential sanctions were discussed with a conscientious mindfulness of their impact on Iranians.

AEI resident scholar Fred Kagan, who supports sanctions, declared, “Look, we need to be honest about this. Iranians are going to die if we impose additional sanctions.”

Even the issue of an Iran with nuclear weapons is no longer discussed with the same apocalyptic language that has been used in the past, with most panelists now saying the biggest threat is an Iran emboldened to “act out” with what Lieberman called its “terrorist proxies.”

While Lieberman strongly disagreed with those who said, “we can learn to live with a nuclear Iran,” Kagan conceded that living with a nuclear Iran is a position that “reasonable people” can take.

The panel viewed sanctions, engagement, and a potential military strike as tactics that will help the United States get what it wants from Iran—though military action was portrayed as the least desirable option.

“I am not advocating a military strike against Iran,” said Kagan, later describing himself as “someone who is desperate to avoid war with Iran.”

“If there were any military strike on Iran, people would rally around the flag,” warned Michael Rubin, another neoconservative at AEI.

Panelists had varying negative views on the question of a potential Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear facilities, an option raised by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in an interview last month.

While Rubin insisted several times that Israel is a sovereign state and will act as such, Ken Pollack of the Brookings Institution took the view that an Israeli strike was the “worst” option from an “American perspective.” He said that although Israel could not “flatten every building in Iran that has anything to do with the nuclear program,” an Israeli strike would incur all the negative consequences of a direct U.S. strike.

But Pollack said such a strike was unlikely: “On a practical level, Israel really doesn’t like to do things that invoke [the ire] of the U.S.”

Lieberman and others on the panel, however, said that using military power remained an option, and that engagement had to be approached cautiously and carefully.

“By rushing into engagement without considering timing,” Rubin said, “every [Iranian President Mahmood] Ahmadinejad rebuff becomes a … populist chip.”

Rubin doesn’t hold out much hope that this June’s Iranian election will bring much change to the Islamic Republic or its nuclear program, noting that Iran’s real power is based in the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

“There will be some issues decided in the Iranian elections,” he said. “Unfortunately, they will be issues of style, not substance.”
“Rather than move towards resolution,” he said, “[the Iranians] will throw up more obstacles.”

Pollack, a semi-neoconservative ally who was jokingly introduced as being from “AEI West”, said that people in Washington are getting “euphoric about engagement.”

“As [Lieberman] put it, engagement is not a strategy; it is a tactic,” Pollack said, echoing a pervasive uncertainty about how Obama’s Iran policy review is shaping up. But he added that although the Iranian regime remains “authoritarian” and “brutish,” that doesn’t preclude better relations.

One of the benefits of engagement, said Pollack, was that the United States could “reach out to Iranian people and see that their government doesn’t serve their interests.”

The panel, in general, seemed to shy away from forcing regime change in Iran, at least in the short term.

“If you want to do regime change in Iran,” said Kagan, you have “to invade.”

Such a prospect, he said, would require 600,000 soldiers—impossible with forces already stretched thin between Iraq and Afghanistan. Regime change, he said, was something “we are going to aim for over generations.”

Ali Gharib writes for the Inter Press Service and PRA’s Right Web (http://www.rightweb.irc-online.org).

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