U.S. Faces a Crossroads on Iran Policy
By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 19, 2004; Page A09
The Bush administration is under mounting pressure to take action to deal with Iran -- and end the drift that has characterized U.S. policy for more than three years.
The final report of the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, due Thursday, may further intensify the policy debate, as it says Iran let eight of the 19 hijackers transit through Iran from neighboring Afghanistan -- a claim Tehran does not deny. The issue is whether it happened with Iran's compliance or because of porous borders.
Acting CIA Director John E. McLaughlin said yesterday that the United States has known for "some time" about the al Qaeda passage through Iran, although he said there is "no evidence" of a connection between Iran and the Sept. 11 attacks.
In response, Iran's Foreign Ministry said yesterday that preventing illegal passage was difficult because of the long frontier, adding that it has since tried to tighten control. "Even more people may [illegally] cross the border between Mexico and the United States," spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi told reporters in Tehran.
The dispute -- and uncertainty -- over al Qaeda's use of Iran comes as the White House is being pulled in distinctly different directions on Tehran.
Since May, Congress has been moving -- with little notice -- toward a joint resolution calling for punitive action against Iran if it does not fully reveal details of its nuclear arms program. In language similar to the prewar resolution on Iraq, a recent House resolution authorized the use of "all appropriate means" to deter, dissuade and prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weaponry -- terminology often used to approve preemptive military force. Reflecting the growing anxiety on Capitol Hill about Iran, it passed 376 to 3.
In contrast, two of the most prominent foreign policy groups in Washington are calling for the United States to end a quarter-century of hostile relations and begin new diplomatic overtures to Iran, despite disagreements on a vast range of issues. Because the "solidly entrenched" government provides the only "authoritative" interlocutors, Washington should "deal with the current regime rather than wait for it to fall," says a Council on Foreign Relations report released today.
The disparate range of proposals underscores the near void in U.S. policy toward Iran -- in stark contrast to the two other countries in what President Bush calls the "axis of evil." The administration launched a war to oust Saddam Hussein in Iraq and is now engaged in delicate talks over nuclear issues with North Korea. But six months before its first term ends, the administration has still not formally signed off on a strategy for Iran since a review of U.S. policy was begun in 2001, U.S. officials say.
Pressed to define U.S. policy on Iran, one frustrated senior U.S. official cracked, "Oh, do we have one?"
Bush administration policy has generally been piecemeal and reactive to broader or tangential issues, rather than to Iran itself, U.S. officials say. "What we have is a summation of various pieces -- one piece on nuclear weapons, one on human rights, another on terrorism, other pieces on drugs, Iraq and Afghanistan," a senior State Department official said.
White House officials point to a three-paragraph presidential statement two years ago this month as the core policy. It notes local and national elections when voters supported reformers; it then calls on Tehran to "listen to their hopes."
"As Iran's people move towards a future defined by greater freedom, greater tolerance, they will have no better friend than the United States," the statement reads. But it offers no policy specifics or prescriptions. It instead reached out beyond Tehran in hopes that Iranians would be able to change their government or its positions.
Since then, the Bush administration has warned Tehran about meddling in Iraq and lashed out at the Islamic republic for not fulfilling its promise to provide all information to the U.N. watchdog agency on its nuclear energy program, which Washington suspects is being diverted to build a nuclear weapon.
"The Iranians need to feel the pressure from the world that any nuclear weapons program will be uniformly condemned," Bush told newspaper editors in April. "The development of a nuclear weapon in Iran is intolerable."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company