US Affairs: Terms of engagement

The stick of American pressure on Israel may be the key carrot for Iranian agreement to talk to US.

gates 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
gates 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
As pressure grows on the Bush administration to find a solution to the conflict in Iraq, the notion of engagement with Iran is expected to increase in viability. And that has some supporters of Israel concerned. "We need to be careful," said Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.). "It's a slippery slope." A sea change is forming in US Middle Eastern policy. The confirmation of Robert Gates as secretary of defense and the release of the Iraq Study Group's guidance, which both came Wednesday, suggest new ideas and approaches are likely as the US seeks an exit strategy and a decrease in American casualties. Engagement with Iran is a key part of the equation. The study group, led by former secretary of state James Baker and former congressman Lee Hamilton, called for direct engagement with Iran and Syria to "try to obtain their commitment to constructive policies toward Iraq and other regional issues." The report recommended the US give incentives for Iran and Syria to participate in talks. That may mean American pressure on Israel will be the key carrot for Iranian participation. And there is concern that US engagement with Iran, or the desire for assistance, could weaken the country's resolve to be tough on the regime when it comes to its nuclear weapon development, a substantial threat to the Jewish state. THE DEPARTURE of John Bolton as ambassador to the UN heightens the concerns. While Bolton lost the chance at Senate confirmation due to his management style, he was universally seen as a strong critic of Iran and had the rare public backing of several American Jewish organizations. The potential for diplomatic dialogue with Iran remains remote. A greater chance exists for back-channel communication with officials within President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's regime. On the one hand, getting the US and Iran on the same "page-one" issue could bridge gaps that could be used to facilitate a discussion on the weapons program. On the other hand, American reliance on Iran for success in Iraq could handicap it elsewhere. "They wouldn't negotiate with us because they are good people or want to help the United States," said Engel, who has authored legislation imposing sanctions on Iran for its nuclear weapon development. "The question is: What are we going to give them quietly in exchange for their help with Iraq? One has to think that somewhere along the line it will have to do with Israel." The feeling that engagement with Iran could hurt Israel's standing is not universal. M.J. Rosenberg, Washington director of the Israel Policy Forum, said all of America's options for dealing with Iran remain on the table. "It depends how large a priority stopping Iran's nuclear program is for the Bush administration," he said. "If it's a top priority, their [Iran's] theoretical helpfulness in Iraq is not going to take away their [America's] concerns." Rosenberg said he believes Iran wants engagement with the US more than it wants a weapons program, and that the Bush administration needs to meet benchmarks in Iraq to focus attention on other international issues. "I think we are in a weakened position everywhere," he said. "Iraq has pretty much gobbled up all of the policy thinking in the administration." Baker said Wednesday that Iran and Syria were not champing at the bit to talk with the US and that they "very well might not." "But we also say we ought to put it to them, though, so that the world will see the rejectionist attitude that they are projecting by that action," he said. While all options remain on the table, Gates said Tuesday that an attack on Iran "would be an absolute last resort." "I think that we have seen, in Iraq, that once war is unleashed, it becomes unpredictable," he told the Senate Armed Services Committee, which unanimously supported his confirmation. "And I think that the consequences of a military conflict with Iran could be quite dramatic." For its part, the White House has said it will not talk directly with Iran until it verifiably suspends its uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities. "There is realism and skepticism about Iran," White House spokesman Tony Snow said Wednesday. "We share the goal of having all of these problems addressed and addressed in an effective way when it comes to Iran and similarly with Syria." Engel said he has been supportive of Bush's tough stance on Iran and his history of supporting Israel. He told the president as much a few days earlier, talking to him at a White House Christmas party. "He deserves the benefit of the doubt, given his support of Israel," Engel said. "But there are those in the administration that are pushing the other way, and we have to make sure they don't have the upper hand." The writer is a reporter for Congressional Quarterly.