The electoral turmoil in Iran has scuttled a controversial visit to Iran by congressional staffers that was seen by moderates as a possible turning point in U.S.-Iranian relations.
Iranian officials decided to shelve a planned visit by aides of three lawmakers, Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware, Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Rep. Robert Ney of Ohio.
The trip was expected to lay the groundwork for a visit by a congressional delegation.
“Nobody is going because Iran canceled,” Specter told the Forward.
The proposed trip was criticized last week as untimely by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the pro-Israel lobby American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
Controversy had particularly surrounded the role of Specter, the only Jewish Republican in the Senate, who is close to Jewish communal leaders but has frequently played a maverick role in Middle East affairs.
Specter said he had pledged at a meeting with Jewish representatives on Tuesday that he would consult with them before planning any visit, stressing that he still intended to travel to Iran.
“I believe it’s useful to talk to people,” he said. “And I am straightforward when I talk to the Iranians.”
Congressional and Jewish communal sources said the Iranian government was leery of bringing Americans to the country during what has become a tense standoff between reformers and hard-liners in the run-up to the February 20 elections.
Calls seeking comment went unreturned by the Iranian mission to the United Nations.
The Bush administration has been torn between its determination to confront the Iranian regime on issues such as nuclear proliferation and support of terrorism, and its desire to enlist Tehran’s help in smoothing complicated transitions in neighboring Afghanistan and Iraq.
The policy set by Bush in July 2002 is to engage the “people” of Iran rather than the government, reflecting a belief that the hard-liners are in control and that engaging the reformist faction is useless.
But the vagueness of this policy has opened the door for different approaches by the hawks at the Pentagon and in Vice President Richard Cheney’s office, and the doves at the State Department.
In the latest example of such ambiguity, American officials stopped meeting with their Iranian counterparts in May after Washington claimed Tehran was sheltering some Al Qaeda operatives it blamed for suicide bombings in Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, a new round of contacts started up late last year following Iran’s agreement to allow international monitoring of its nuclear program and its acceptance of American aide after the deadly earthquake in the city of Bam. Washington cautiously welcomed Iran’s new openness on the nuclear issue and delivered aid to quake survivors, even though Tehran refused to allow a visit by an official U.S. humanitarian delegation.
In another sign of thaw, the State Department authorized Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, Javad Zarif, to travel from New York to Washington two weeks ago to attend a dinner with legislators hosted by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, waiving the 25-mile travel restriction on U.N. ambassadors from countries under U.S. sanctions.
A few days later, Specter announced that he and fellow lawmakers had finalized plans with Zarif at the dinner to make a trip to Iran. The State Department publicly welcomed the idea.
But Jewish organizations objected vigorously. The Conference of Presidents last week urged Specter in a letter “to hold off on his plans to send his staff to Iran this month to arrange a meeting” for Specter.
Aipac weighed in shortly thereafter. “Given that the government of Iran is currently positioning to tighten its grip on the forces of democracy, a congressional visit at this time could have inadvertently empowered Iranian hard-liners,” said Rebecca Dinar, an Aipac spokeswoman.
In an “action alert” sent to its members on February 10, Aipac noted that Iran had hosted a conference last week of more than 40 terrorist organizations. It urged members to support congressional resolutions introduced last November expressing concern over Iran’s failure to comply with its international obligations to forgo military nuclear programs.
Specter , as well as spokesmen for Biden and Ney, countered that talking to Iran did not mean condoning the regime and that they had forcefully spelled out American concerns over Tehran’s nuclear programs and support for terrorism in their contacts with Iranian officials during the past several years.
“The senator is trying to drive a wedge between the conservatives and the reformers so that there will be more chance for democracy to appear,” said Norm Kurz, a spokesman for Biden, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Biden did not attend the Washington dinner, but he met last month with Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
Aides to the three legislators said they had not been asked by anyone in the administration to cancel the trip.
A senior administration official told the Forward that the administration thinks conversations between U.S. legislators and Iranian officials could be useful.
Iran is deadlocked in a dispute over its February 20 parliamentary elections. The Council of Guardians, a legislative supervisory body dominated by hard-liners, sparked a political crisis last month when it excluded some 3,000 mainly pro-reform candidates from elections.
The decision ignited a political battle, with reformist legislators resigning en masse and the main reformist parties warning that they would boycott the polls if their candidates are not reinstated.
Although the council has agreed to reinstate around a third of the candidatures, and top leaders have tried to hammer out a compromise, the situation was still deadlocked at press time on Wednesday.
The Bush administration has remained largely silent over the tussle.
American hawks are urging the administration to refrain from engaging Tehran because they see the recent developments as the beginning of a Soviet-like implosion of the mullah regime. They contend that a power grab by the hard-liners would in fact accelerate an internal meltdown.
On the other hand, some liberal policymakers advocate a “grand bargain” with Iran that would solve all outstanding disputes between both countries.
Most observers think the administration, despite its internal divisions, will not engage the regime in a meaningful way but will not push for regime change either, especially at a time when it needs Tehran’s goodwill to smooth the situation in Iraq.
The outcome of the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program could help shape the policy debate in coming months, observers said.
In November, resolutions were introduced in the Senate by Jon Kyl of Arizona and Dianne Feinstein of California and in the House by Rep. Curt Weldon of Pennsylvania and Rep. Jane Harman of California, expressing concern over Iran’s nuclear weapons program and urging the president to use all appropriate means to prevent Iran from obtaining such weapons. The resolutions now have 18 cosponsors in the Senate and 41 in the House.