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President Bush’s decision to replace Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld with Robert M. Gates signals to experienced Iran observers that the Bush White House is about to shift direction once again in Iranian foreign policy, moving back to the type of “constructive engagement” strategy that typified the failed Clinton administration policy toward Iran as originated by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

The nomination also suggests stronger Council on Foreign Relations influence on White House thinking than previously recognized.

What is the evidence for these conclusions? In 2004, Gates co-chaired, along with Zbigniew Brzezinski, a Council on Foreign Relations task force report entitled, “Iran: Time for a New Approach.” Brzezinski was best known for his role as national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter from 1977 to 1981. The main point of the Gates- Brzezinski task force was to advocate a policy of “limited or selective engagement with the current Iranian government.”

The language of the Gates- Brzezinski task force could easily have been drawn directly from the foreign policy of Carter as advised by Brzezinski, Clinton under Madame Albright’s tutelage, or even Richard Nixon as counseled by Henry Kissinger. Consider the following:


A political dialogue with Iran should not be deferred until such a time as the deep differences over Iranian nuclear ambitions and its invidious involvement with regional conflicts have been resolved. Rather, the process of selective political engagement itself represents a potentially effective path for addressing those differences. Just as the United States maintains 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 policies.

The expected result of the constructive engagement would be to bring Iran into a constructive international dialogue designed to resolve differences. Again, here is the language from the task force report:


Ultimately, any real rapprochement with Tehran can only occur in the context of meaningful progress on the most urgent U.S. concerns surrounding nuclear weapons, terrorism and regional stability.

Instead of arriving at the type of “grand bargain” with Iran that John Kerry pressed during his failed 2004 presidential campaign, the Gates-Brzezinski CFR task force called for “selectively engaging Iran on issues where U.S. and Iranian interests converge.”

The growing CFR influence on the Bush foreign policy is consistent with the growing influence of Kissinger on the Bush White House. Kissinger is a CFR luminary who the administration now acknowledges has been a recent frequent guest at the White House for private talks with the president. Another CFR notable, James Baker III, is now heading Bush’s Iraq Study Team.

With the appointment of Condoleezza Rice, a James Baker prot?g?, to be secretary of state at the start of Bush’s second term, the administration changed policy to support negotiations with Iran to be led by the EU-3 of France, Germany and the UK, together with the International Atomic Energy Agency. Two years later, those negotiations have predictably stalled in the U.N. Security Council where permanent members Russia and China, both allies of Iran, have blocked any meaningful sanctions.

That Iran under President Ahmadinejad has resumed uranium enrichment in open defiance of the EU-3, the IAEA and the U.N. Security Council should be abundant evidence that negotiations with Tehran will not succeed, unless the negotiations are premised on accepting Iran’s asserted right “to pursue the full fuel cycle,” which translates to accepting continued uranium enrichment by Iran on Iranian soil.

Despite the failure of these negotiations, the Bush administration appears to be preparing for direct talks with Iran, designed to implement the strategy of constructive engagement.

Notable on the Gates-Brzezinski CFR task force was Frank Carlucci, the former secretary of defense in the Reagan administration who went on to be a founding principal of the Carlyle Group. Financial ties between the Carlyle Group and both George H. W. Bush and Kissinger Associates serve as further backdrop for the interlacing relationships about to play out in the anticipated foreign policy shift the Bush administration is contemplating with regards to Iran.

The appointment of Gates signals an end to any possibility of utilizing a strategy of engineering regime change within Iran, following the path President Reagan utilized to bring down the Soviet Union.

Despite President Bush signing the Iran Freedom Support Act in September 2006, the State Department still has refused to make regime change the official U.S. policy toward Iran.

The State Department also continues to sit upon the millions of dollars Sens. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., and Sam Brownback, R-Kan., have inserted into legislation for the State Department to disburse to non-governmental organizations dedicated to supporting democracy movements within Iran.

Today, the White House disclosed that consideration of the Gates nomination was seriously considered last weekend, giving context to reports coming out of Iran that talks with the U.S. would be considered.

Responding to reports that U.S. and Iraqi officials have suggested U.S.-Iranian talks might take place on regional developments, Iran’s foreign minister spokesman, Mohammad-Ali Hosseini, told reporters Monday that “if we receive any formal offer in this regard, we will consider it.”

Experienced Iran observers such as Amir Taheri have long counseled that negotiating with the Ahmadinejad regime is unlikely to produce anticipated favorable results. Rejecting a central tenet of the Gates-Brzezinski CFR task force report, Taheri argues that Ahmadinejad’s presidency reflects a second phase of the Iranian revolution in which the Shiite regime anticipates regional dominance.

Taheri notes that Iran under Ahmadinejad has continued to finance and re-arm both Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza. Writing in the November 2006 issue of Commentary, Taheri makes a strong argument that internal divisions in Iran could even today be exploited by the type of regime change efforts the Reagan administration applied to topple the Soviet Union.

While the Bush administration is likely to resist the conclusion, a shift of policy to engage in direct talks with Iran probably signals a Bush administration acceptance of Iran’s continued progress toward nuclear weapons. Iran is unlikely to accept talks with the United States on any other basis than a “no conditions” acceptance of Tehran’s current uranium enrichment program at Natanz.



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