The Bush administration is working with European governments on a plan to kick the question of Iran’s nuclear ambitions to the United Nations Security Council as a part of a broader examination of nuclear proliferation.
The strategy — combining gradualism, multilateralism and a reliance on the United Nations — contrasts sharply with the approach the administration took a year ago toward Iran’s neighbor, Iraq. Facing what it then described as a regime that had links to the September 11 terrorist attacks and was committed to developing non-conventional weapons, the administration overrode European appeals for patience and bypassed the United Nations.
The decision to rely heavily now on the United Nations and European nations — including France and Germany — comes as Iran’s alleged terror links are under increasing scrutiny, and is sure to fuel the anger of White House allies upset over what they see as the administration’s failure to confront Tehran. Many foreign policy hawks are criticizing the White House for failing to push aggressively for regime change and are accusing the administration of lacking a coherent Iran policy.
It is a “major problem,” said Danielle Pletka, the vice president of the American Enterprise Institute, a hawkish think tank associated with many of the neoconservative analysts who pushed for the Iraq war.
Further complicating the administration’s task, several hawkish measures are working their way through the GOP-controlled Congress that would require more direct confrontation with Iran, up to and including regime change.
At the other end of the spectrum, key allies are pressing the administration for greater engagement with the existing regime. A report released Monday by a bipartisan task force of the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations recommended that since the “solidly entrenched” government in Iran provides the only “authoritative” interlocutors, Washington should “deal with the current regime rather than wait for it to fall.”
The new information surfacing on links between Iran and Al Qaeda has sharpened doubts about the administration’s emphasis on ties between the terror network and Iraq.
As first reported by Time magazine in its online edition last weekend, the report due this week from the September 11 commission was expected to state that Iran allowed as many as 10 of the 19 hijackers involved in the September 11 attacks to pass through its territory between October 2000 and February 2001. Iranian officials reportedly ordered border guards not to stamp the terrorists’ passports, thus facilitating their entry into the United States.
Iranian officials have acknowledged the possibility but blamed it on sloppy border controls. Both the American and the Iranian government say that no evidence exists to suggest that Tehran was involved in the Al Qaeda plot.
Nonetheless, President Bush told reporters Monday that the administration would continue to look into the issue.
The September 11 Commission report was expected to outline other Iranian connections to terrorism as well, including a claim that Iranian officials approached Al Qaeda after the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen in 2000 to collaborate on future attacks against the United States. The overture was reportedly rejected by Osama bin Laden.
Such disclosures are expected to increase the calls in some corners for a more hawkish White House policy on Iran.
In a sign of potential trouble for the administration, a Cold War-era coalition, The Committee on the Present Danger, reformulated itself this week and launched a new campaign to press for a more aggressive fight against “terror inspired by radical Islamists.” The committee, a coalition of prominent hawks such as Norman Podhoretz, Jeane Kirkpatrick and Jack Kemp, has two senators serving as its honorary co-chairmen, Democrat Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and Republican Jon Kyl of Arizona.
So far, the committee is steering clear of direct attacks against the Bush administration, but its full-page advertisement Wednesday in the New York Times offered several arguments that have been employed by hawks to suggest that the White House is not doing enough to fight against radical Islam and Arab terrorism.
Pletka told the Forward that she advocates a proactive policy that would have the American government employ a mix of public diplomacy and moral and financial support to encourage Iranian citizens to change their government, in the same way that the United States aided Eastern Europeans in their fight against Soviet rule.
The House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a resolution in May calling for punitive action against Iran if it does not fully reveal details of its nuclear arms program and authorizing the use of “all appropriate means” to deter, dissuade and prevent Iran from acquiring such weaponry. The Senate is expected to adopt a similar resolution when Congress reconvenes in September.
In addition, Senator Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican, plans to introduce a bill in the fall that will call for the administration to adopt a policy of regime change in Iran. The stated goal would be to help the “transition into democracy” by funding human rights and advocacy groups, according to a source familiar with the bill. The bill is expected to request between $20 and $50 million for helping nongovernmental organizations, think tanks and Web sites instead of opposition parties, the source said. Calls to Brownback’s office were not returned.
For now, the Bush administration appears to be staking out a dramatically more patient approach than its allies advocate, opting to explore with European countries the possibility of bringing the issue of Iran’s nuclear program to the United Nations in the coming months. The idea would be to address the issue through a more general discussion of the fight against nuclear proliferation, sources said.
The administration’s goal would be to have the Security Council call for a tighter enforcement of the rules governing the Non-Proliferation Treaty, without specifically referring to Tehran’s ambitions. A U.S. official said the administration was considering this option, adding that discussions were still at an early stage.
During the past year, the International Atomic Energy Agency has issued several critical reports on Iran’s nuclear activities, but has refrained from referring the issue to the Security Council. While Iran has repeatedly said it was pursuing a nuclear program exclusively for civilian use, the United States and influential European countries have expressed serious doubts about Tehran’s intentions.
In October 2003, France, Great Britain and Germany reached an agreement with Tehran under which Iran would suspend its uranium enrichment activities and allow unfettered inspections of the atomic energy agency in exchange for technological aid.
Both President Bush and the atomic energy agency’s director general, Mohamed ElBaradei, have proposed a crackdown on international trade in nuclear materials. France began pushing in late June for a sharper focus on Iran and other immediate threats, floating an informal proposal just before the G8 summit of industrial nations that advocated a tighter enforcement of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, according to a source close to the issue.
Meanwhile, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has issued a report endorsing the idea of granting more robust powers to the Security Council for enforcing the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Patrick Clawson, vice president of the Washington Institute on Near East Policy and a hawk on Iran, said he could envision the Security Council passing a resolution that would send a clear message to Tehran by holding out the implied threat of sanctions. Clawson said it made perfect sense for the administration to play a supporting role to the Europeans rather than take the lead on the issue, given American-Iranian tensions and the limited prospects for quick changes in Iran.
“The Europeans are very involved, and we are in broad agreement with them on the main issues,” he said. “So the U.S. has a policy, and it is a wise one.”