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(photo credit: Courtesy)
America should embark on a diplomatic offensive with Iran before it is too late and the only alternative left is war, former NATO supreme allied commander and 2004 Democratic Party presidential candidate Wesley Clark told The Jerusalem Post on the sidelines of this week's counterterrorism conference at the IDC Herzliya.
Clark, a strong candidate for secretary of state or another senior cabinet position should the Democrats win the presidency, took pains to stress on Saturday night that he was not calling for "negotiations" between America and Iran, a US-defined state sponsor of terrorism, but rather for what he insisted was something slightly different: "serious discussions."
The US must face the reality that the kind of diplomacy it has pursued to date "has not dissuaded Iran from changing course one bit," he said.
Still, he made plain, "there should be no illusions: Iran will not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons, and no option is off the table."
Clark's message was that before time runs out, the US should intensify its diplomatic engagement with Teheran based on a framework of principles and consequences, and should not "outsource" its discussions with Iran's regime.
"Real diplomacy has not been tried yet. You've got to really talk. You've got to propose some alternatives. You've got to have face-to-face discussions. These have to be at a high level, and you've got to sustain this. That's real diplomacy, and that's what the United States can do," Clark said, adding, "I don't know if the Iranians are capable of this, but you can never know until you try."
Clark, whose 1997-2000 NATO post saw him in charge of Operation Allied Force in the Kosovo war, said again that he was "not calling for negotiations, but real, robust diplomacy. Courageous diplomacy backed by threats of force can produce results, like it did in southeastern Europe. In the end, we had to go to war anyway. [But] when we went to war in Kosovo, we did it only after every possible alternative had been tried.
"To the best of my knowledge, America has turned down two or three Iranian approaches," he added, referring to one report that in 2003 Iran sent the State Department a fax that, according to the Washington Post, contained a proposal from Iran for a broad dialogue with the US and suggested everything was on the table - including full cooperation on nuclear programs, acceptance of Israel, and the termination of Iranian support for Palestinian terror groups.
As Clark presented it, serious discussions would not necessarily entail a give-and-take approach - negotiations per se - but an engagement on various levels of diplomacy. The current administration's condition of a halt to uranium enrichment before the two sides could sit down to talk, he said, was a "precondition that stops diplomacy."
Said Clark: "If you really want to talk to Iran, go talk to Iran. I say we need to make a major push for diplomacy."
Clark, who said he had the same kind of "serious discussions, face-to-face" with former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, believed there was still time for serious American diplomacy with Iran. He said the US could meet with the Iranians and tell them, in a direct way, that unless they changed their present course, there would be consequences.
Appearing to blur his distinction, Clark then said he thought there was room for a "give-and-take" approach by the Americans, but quickly added, "not negotiations."
"We're not going to give them anything that this government wants," he elaborated. "What we're going to have to do is change the way that Iran thinks about its future. That's what real diplomacy would entail.
"How does Iran think about its future? What opportunities does Iran really seek for itself? Does it want a world of confrontation? Does it want a war? Does it want enduring hostility? Does it need an enemy, and if so, why? The Iranian people don't want that, they want engagement," he asserted.
"Iran used to be a partner of Israel in this region," he noted. "They are still the most pro-Western population in the region by public opinion polls. So who's to say that it's impossible to change ideas?"
Clark drew a broad outline of what the American approach could be like, while acknowledging that Iran was not Kosovo, that Ahmadinejad was not Milosevic, and that a diplomatic offensive might not work.
In general, the US could start talking to Iran about principles: respecting borders, no interference in other states and no arming of groups in other states. Once those principles were laid out, he said, the next step would be to elucidate the consequences if those principles were not met.
If the Iranians accepted these principles, they might be readmitted into the international community, their assets could be unfrozen, and they might even be allowed to have nuclear reactors, not enrichment. But if they failed on these principles, the consequences would be loss of access to the international financial community, loss of oil markets, and technology sanctions - and ultimately, if Iran persisted in going after nuclear weapons and could not be prevented by all other means, force would be used.
This kind of process would entail more than "just one discussion," Clark stressed. "These are proud people. If you threaten them the first time, they will look like Milosevic looked when I threatened him. People don't like to be threatened. It insults their manhood."
The former NATO commander said he was intimately aware of Israel's security needs, an awareness gained through frequent visits. He also recalled talking about the region with former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who took him for a 4 a.m. walk around the Old City walls in 1976. The pre-dawn atmosphere was "magical and emotional," he recalled.
Clark said that in the past, he had helped the IDF set up desert training centers and spoken frequently about the region with former IDF chiefs of General Staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak and Shaul Mofaz, the current transportation minister.
"Iran is the No. 1 threat in the region, and sadly, as we have seen, the road to Jerusalem has not run through Baghdad," he said.â€¢