WASHINGTON, Jul 22, 2008 (IPS) - Two of Washington's most prominent foreign policy greybeards praised Saturday's direct participation in multinational talks with Iran by a senior U.S. diplomat but called on the administration of President George W. Bush to drop his demands that Tehran freeze its uranium enrichment programme as a precondition for broader negotiations.
Ret. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, who served as national security adviser under Republican presidents Gerald Ford and George H. W. Bush, and Zbigniew Brzezinski, who held the same post under Democratic President Jimmy Carter, urged Bush to go further by offering immediate rewards to Tehran in exchange for such a freeze.
And both men warned that repeated U.S. threats to use military force against Iran were counter-productive and strengthened hard-line forces in the regime led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. They said an actual military attack -- whether by the U.S. or by Israel -- would likely be disastrous for U.S. interests in the region.
"A war with Iran will produce calamities for sure," said Brzezinski, who pointed, among other things, to its likely impact on the price of oil and the likelihood that it would create yet another front to add to the two wars -- Iraq and Afghanstan -- in which U.S. military forces are already engaged.
"(Brzezinski's assessment) may be a little more dire (than mine) but not much," Scowcroft told IPS in a brief interview after the two men spoke at a briefing sponsored by the Centre for Security and International Studies (CSIS) here. "It would turn the region into a cauldron of conflict, bitterness, and hatred. It would turn Islam against us."
Both men have been strongly critical of U.S. policy in the Middle East, particularly the decision to invade Iraq -- although Brzezinski has been considerably more vocal than Scowcroft, who remains a close friend of Bush's father. Both leading lights of the so-called "realist" foreign-policy establishment, they are currently collaborating on a book to be published in September.
Their joint appearance at CSIS, which was announced late last week after the administration had confirmed that undersecretary of state for policy, Amb. William Burns, would attend Saturday's meeting between the so-called P5+1 (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany) and Iran, seemed timed to demonstrate strong bipartisan support for continued and enhanced U.S. engagement.
Burns' direct participation at the talks not only marked the highest-level officially and publicly acknowledged meeting between the U.S. and Iran since the two nations broke off diplomatic relations in late 1979. It also appeared to mark a potentially significant easing of previous administration demands that Tehran suspend its uranium enrichment programme as a condition for direct talks.
Coupled with reports that Washington plans to open a Interests Section in Tehran, as well as a series of strong statements by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, warning against the consequences of a U.S. or Israeli attack on Iran, Burns' presence was widely interpreted here as a sign that the administration has made a strategic decision to engage Iran diplomatically, much as it did, beginning in late 2006, with yet another charter member of Bush's "Axis of Evil", North Korea.
Indeed, hawks outside the administration who are nonetheless closely associated with administration hard-liners led by Vice President Dick Cheney have been complaining bitterly about the decision to send Burns since it was announced. The neo-conservative Weekly Standard called the move "stunningly shameful", while former U.N. Amb. John Bolton said it was proof of the administration's "complete intellectual collapse".
Similarly, the neo-conservative editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, which has long urged confrontation with Iran, has assailed the decision as foreshadowing "détente". On Monday, it published a column by Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) that charged Bush with "appeasing" Tehran and conducting "diplomatic malpractice on a Carteresque level."
While these protests themselves constitute evidence that a strategic decision to engage Iran in much the same way that the administration has dealt with North Korea over the past 18 months -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will meet for the first time with her North Korean counterpart in Singapore later this week -- has indeed been made, many analysts remain uncertain.
The White House itself stressed that Burns' presence was a "one-time" affair. And Rice, who, along with Pentagon chief Robert Gates, is seen as the administration's main champion for engagement, followed up the meeting by setting a two-week deadline for Tehran to respond to the P5+1's offer -- the so-called "freeze-for-freeze" -- to forgo a fourth round of U.N. sanctions against it if it refrained from adding new centrifuges to its enrichment programme.
The group, she said, had sent a "very strong message to the Iranians that they can't go and stall... and that they have to make a decision," suggesting that Washington would push for sanctions if Tehran does not provide a satisfactory response by the deadline.
To some observers, both her tone and her words suggested that Rice herself feels vulnerable, particularly given the failure of Iran's representative to the Geneva talks, Amb. Saeed Jalili, to respond directly to the proposal on the table.
Scowcroft agreed Tuesday that the Iranian response had indeed been "disappointing" but also suggested that Rice's "rather sharp" remarks were likely to strengthen hard-liners in Tehran. Brzezinski also criticised Rice's ultimatum, asserting that it was "not helpful to the negotiating process".
Scowcroft said Burns' presence in Geneva was "encouraging", while Brzezinski called it a "very good step" but insufficient in itself to break the "logjam" created by the administration's precondition for direct talks. They also denounced the administration's repeated reminders that "all options remain on the table" as counter-productive.
"It tends to push Iranians into a more nationalistic, dogmatic stance," said Brzezinski, while Scowcroft said it offered only the "illusion of a clean solution" to what is essentially "a very complicated diplomatic problem".
At the same time, they endorsed the use of sanctions as a means of pressuring Iran, provided that they were coupled with incentives whose benefits to Tehran would be clear and immediate in order to make it easier for the regime to make concessions. "Give them a way out without losing face," Scowcroft said.
On speculation that Israel may be preparing to take unilateral military action against Iran's nuclear facilities, Brzezinski said it would not be a "smart strategic choice" due to the likelihood that the U.S. would even become "more bogged down" in the region. Scowcroft said he would tell the Israelis to "calm down".
*Jim Lobe's blog on U.S. foreign policy, and particularly the neo-conservative influence in the Bush administration, can be read at http://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe/.