Amid concern that the U.S. is drifting toward eventual confrontation with Iran, a growing number of influential statesmen, Republican senators and foreign policy experts are stepping up pressure on the Bush administration to consider doing what no U.S. administration has done in 27 years: talk directly with Iran.
In recent congressional hearings, think-tank conferences, op-ed essays and media appearances, Republican heavyweights -- including former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) and Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) -- have publicly urged the administration to leave the current path of escalation and join European allies in direct talks with Tehran.
The public campaign parallels private efforts by GOP insiders, foreign policy specialists and U.S. allies abroad to influence the thinking of key administration officials, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Elliott Abrams, who oversees Iran policy at the National Security Council. Both have met recently with foreign diplomats and outside experts and have discussed U.S. diplomacy with Iran.
“I think the administration is gradually and with some reluctance moving in the right direction,” said a central figure in the Republican foreign policy establishment who is trying to shift the administration’s stance.
“But I don’t think they are taking initiatives now. I think they are being dragged.”
The administration’s stance toward Iran, refusing direct talks while allowing other nations to negotiate, has paid few dividends and could add to the unpopularity of future sanctions or military action, the foreign policy expert said.
But the administration may be forced to change as a result of “pressure from Europeans, from the Russians, and the general sense that they are just on a wicket they can’t sustain there,” the expert said.
As pressure on the White House intensified in the last week, there were signs of slight but significant shifts in the administration position.
Press Secretary Tony Snow repeated the administration’s refusal to consider direct talks but said things could change if Iran suspended its uranium enrichment efforts and committed to halting them permanently.
“When that happens, all right, then there may be some opportunities,” Snow said.
On May 8, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wrote a 17-page letter asking Bush for direct talks.
In Snow’s comments last week, analysts said they detected the outlines of a U.S. counterproposal about conditions for possible talks.
A decision to talk to the Iranians would be a dramatic departure from the administration’s strategy of isolating the Tehran regime. Critics of engagement, including Vice President Dick Cheney and influential neoconservatives, say such talks would legitimize a duplicitous regime and represent a blow to Iranian human rights activists and dissidents.
The Bush administration has sought to support anti-regime efforts.
Such hawkish voices have dominated in the administration and Congress, but a perceptible recent shift seems to favor Republican foreign policy “realists” and moderates.
Pressure for talks involving the United States began to build after the collapse of a Russian-sponsored compromise on Iranian nuclear enrichment this year and after disagreement in the last month within the U.N. Security Council on the best approach.
“Some of the E.U. members were nervous that things were really going downhill very fast and headed to military confrontation,” said one nongovernmental energy consultant knowledgeable about the internal debate. “When [the Russia proposal] failed, all bets were off. And that prompted thinking that there has got to be another way.”
Visiting German officials urged the administration to hold direct talks in April, and Rice has met with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who favors greater U.S. involvement.
Lugar held two days of testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this month featuring speaker after speaker who proposed some form of dialogue.
“The witnesses generally shared the view that no diplomatic options, including direct talks, should be taken off the table,” Lugar said. “Direct talks may in some circumstances be useful to demonstrating to our allies our commitment to diplomacy [and] reducing the risk of accidental escalation.”
Kissinger and Hagel have called for talks.
Proponents of such talks point out that even in the case of North Korea -- which, like Iran, Bush considers a rogue state -- U.S. officials have taken a place at the bargaining table with representatives of other nations, in some cases speaking to their adversaries in person.
“There are lots of things we can talk about,” said retired Air Force Gen. Brent Scowcroft, who served as national security advisor to former President George H.W. Bush and was a mentor to Rice. “We don’t even have to talk directly. We could set up a system like we have with North Korea and talk to them on the fringes, in the hallways. There are lots of ways to do it, and I think we are gradually getting there.”
Iranian dissidents are pushing for the toughest conditions if the U.S. eventually holds talks with Tehran’s fundamentalist regime.
“I think the U.S. should have a very clear and transparent stance that it will not negotiate with Iran unless Iran should fulfill some prerequisites or preconditions,” said dissident Mohsen Sazegara, who lives in Connecticut. “These conditions can be freedom of speech in Iran ... free elections, free labor syndicates and some other conditions.”
Analysts expect U.S. officials to ease into talks with Iran, beginning not with bilateral negotiations, but a variation of the six-nation talks underway with North Korea. Other analysts suggested such talks would be preceded by negotiations conducted through a third party on terms of possible talks and would begin very quietly.
“If we were going to engage Iran, we would do this very quietly,” said Mike Buttry, an aide to Hagel, who supports talks with Tehran. “We would not write a press release and say, ‘We’ve engaged Iran.’”