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."
But in a split reminiscent of the deep prewar divisions over Iraq, the administration has been at odds over how to accomplish its goals -- engagement, containment or confrontation. Once again, the State Department has been willing to explore areas of potential cooperation -- notably narcotics interdiction, Afghanistan and Iraq -- to see whether discussions under international auspices might lead to wider discussions.
In contrast, the Pentagon and Vice President Cheney's office have resisted making overtures, U.S. officials say. After the heady victory in Afghanistan and before Iraq, a few voices urged a toughened stance against Tehran next. Yet in one of many mixed signals, the White House also offered to send Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) and a member of the Bush family to Iran with humanitarian relief after an earthquake destroyed the ancient city of Bam and killed tens of thousands in December. It was rebuffed.
Iran's even deeper political divisions -- a complex spectrum of reformers and hardliners -- have not helped Washington determine the most effective course to adopt. Further complicating U.S. policy, Tehran also appears to be in transition, as hardliners swept parliamentary elections this year and are poised to win the presidency next year.
"It's difficult in that landscape to take policy risks -- or even to develop policy," said the senior State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
In the vacuum, Congress and top officials of former administrations are increasingly weighing in. The region's changing dynamics over the past two years, with new governments in Iraq and Afghanistan, provide the pretext for new cooperation since Washington and Tehran share an interest in fostering stability, some argue. But Iran's suspected nuclear program also spurs deeper fears of Tehran's intentions than at any time since the 1979 Iranian revolution unleashed Islamic extremism, foreign policy experts and congressional officials say.
Increasingly alarmed over Iran's failure to come clean on its arms programs, Congress is becoming tougher. Since House Resolution 398 passed on May 6, a similar Senate resolution calling for punitive action, mainly through broad new U.N. sanctions, is expected to be put to a vote -- and win overwhelming support -- when Congress returns after Labor Day, congressional sources say.
In an even more dramatic move, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) plans to introduce an Iran liberation act this fall, modeled on the Iraq Liberation Act that mandated government change in Baghdad and provided more than $90 million to the Iraqi opposition. The goals would be the same for Iran, including regime change, congressional officials said.
By contrast, top foreign policy officials from the past six Republican and Democratic administrations are calling for diverse efforts at diplomatic rapprochement. The Council on Foreign Relations report calls for "systematic and pragmatic engagement" with Tehran, saying current U.S. policy and expectations that the government will be ousted are unrealistic.
"The United States should not defer a political dialogue with Iran until deep differences over its nuclear ambitions and involvement in regional conflicts have been resolved. Just as the United States has a constructive relationship with China (and earlier did so with the Soviet Union) while strongly opposing certain aspects of its internal and international policies, Washington should approach Iran with a readiness to explore areas of common interests while continuing to contest objectionable policy," it says.
Although acknowledging that a "grand bargain" covering all issues is also unrealistic now, the report urges Washington to offer a "direct dialogue" on regional stability; broaden cultural and economic links; and press for Iran to hand over al Qaeda detainees in exchange for the United States disbanding the Iraq-based Mujaheddin-e Khalq, the most militant Iran opposition force that is also on the U.S. terrorism list.
The council's bipartisan panel was chaired by Robert M. Gates, CIA director during the first Bush administration, and Carter administration national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski. A second policy paper, due in August, will be published by the Atlantic Council. Its co-chairs are first Bush administration national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, Nixon administration defense secretary James R. Schlesinger, and former chairman of the House International Relations Committee, Lee H. Hamilton, vice chairman of the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks.
Given the impending election, however, both congressional officials and foreign policy analysts say the Bush administration is unlikely to give formal shape to Iran policy, except to press for Tehran's full cooperation with the United Nations on its nuclear program.