The Obama administration is clearly trying to send signals to Iran during the General Assembly session of the United Nations that Washington is open to engagement and just wants Iran to be more transparent about its nuclear power research program. Reuters reports:
‘ “The door is open to them [Iran] having a better relationship with the United States and with the international community,” White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said.
“However, in order to walk through that door, Iran is going to have to demonstrate its commitment to show its peaceful intent around its nuclear program, and meet its obligations to the international community,” he told reporters in a briefing.’
‘ “Iran having a nuclear weapon would be a real problem. We passed the toughest sanctions against Iran, ever. They are having an effect. We continue to be open to diplomatic solutions to resolve this, we don’t think that a war between Israel and Iran, or military options, would be the ideal way to solve this problem. But we are keeping all our options on the table. “
That is about as categorical as a president can get with regard to a thorny, evolving problem. Those so critical now of Obama should remember that John McCain actually sang a ditty about bombing Iran, and that it was entirely possible that had he won, he and Mama Grizzly would have recklessly opened a third front, further destroying our economy and what is left of our civil liberties.
The only one in the administration who doesn’t seem to be on the engagement page at the moment is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She told ABC News on Sunday,
“And I can only hope that there will be some effort inside Iran, by responsible civil and religious leaders, to take hold of the apparatus of the state . . . When you empower a military as much as they have to rely on them to put down legitimate protests and demonstrations, you create a momentum and unleash forces that you do not know where they will end up.”
Clinton sounded an awfully lot like she was calling for regime change. In fact, the comment reminded me of George H.W. Bush’s call for responsible Iraqis to remove Saddam Hussein, made during the Gulf War in 1991. Iraqis, emboldened, staged a revolution in 16 of Iraq’s 18 provinces, with the Shiite Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, then based in Iran, leading the charge in the south, and Kurds rebelling in the north. Bush senior then stood by and allowed Saddam to viciously suppress this rebellion, which he had seemed to call for, with, allegedly, 60,000 killed by the Baath army.
That is, if Clinton is going to say things like that, she should be prepared for them to have significant consequences in Iran, and should be prepared to stand by any “responsible leaders” who answer her call.
Perhaps aware of the gravity of the comment, she had her press secretary retract it the next day :
Philip Crowley, a State Department spokesman, asked if she intended to call for regime change, replied, “No.”
“She was simply questioning the relationship between some elements of the regime and the growing importance of the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) and military elements within the Iranian hierarchy … The military elements, security elements have taken a more prominent role in terms of the suppression of people’s ability to assemble, to demonstrate, to engage in political activity . . .”
In other words, Crowley interprets her as wanting to see Iran’s civilian leadership push back against what she characterizes as a creeping soft coup by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps. But since the IRGC is among the main pillars of the presidency of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, it is a little disingenuous to suggest that Clinton wasn’t calling for him to be unseated.
I am suspicious of the trope of Iran as a military dictatorship, since demonization of a country on those grounds is typical of American war propaganda. Iran has been hard to depict in that light, given that it is ruled by civilian ayatollahs and an elected president and legislature. While it may be that the IRGC has grown in power in recent years, I think it is certainly the case that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei could dismiss the present Revolutionary Guards commander, Mohammad Ali Jafari, and install someone else at the top, and the other officers and the rank and file would acquiesce in it. Ergo, no military coup has taken place.
Obama’s careful statement at the CNBC town hall on Monday may have been intended to do damage control, as administration members prepare to try to open a back channel to Tehran at the UN.
Obama’s statement came a day after this exchange on NBC’s “Meet the Press” with former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who seems determined to redeem himself for helping launch the Iraq War on false intelligence by haunting the Republican Party with his keen sense of conscience, a specter party leaders thought they had long since banished to the netherworld.
‘ MR. GREGORY: In Iran, a path toward confrontation is possible, and I wonder what you think is worse — an Iran with a nuclear weapon, or the fallout of an attack on Iran by either the U.S. or Israel to prevent it having a nuclear weapon?
GEN. POWELL: I don’t think the stars are lining up for an attack on Iran, either by Israel alone or Israel in concert with the United States or the United States alone. I don’t think that’s going to happen. I’ve heard nothing to suggest that we would be interested in doing that or think it will be useful, even though the option is always on the table.
I think eventually we will have to deal with the reality that sanctions may not change the views of the Iranians on these issues and, therefore, let’s see if we can find a way to see if Iran can have a nuclear program that is fixed on power production — low level enrichment of their materiel so that is not on a track to become a weapon.
Now, people will say that’s naive. Once you know how to do that, you can then enrich up to weapons capability. But I think if you take them at their word, “trust but verify,” Reagan’s old sign — if you take them at their word, and they say they are not interested in the weapon, just power.
Then put in place a set of sanctions that would be devastating to them if they violate that agreement and then put in place an IAEA inspection regime and the National Atomic Energy Administration inspection regime that will keep them below that. And get Russia and China and everybody else to agree to it, then you might have to live with an Iran, and you might be able to live with an Iran that has a nuclear power capability but rigid enforcement constraints have been put in so they can’t move up to a weapons-grade program and the production of a nuclear weapon.
Now at the same time, what can they do with a nuclear weapon compared to what we could do in return? I don’t think it is — you know, they are interested in remaining in power. The easiest way for them to lose power is to seriously threaten or use such a weapon.’
Powell, as former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has numerous contacts among serving officers in the Pentagon and at CENTCOM HQ in Tampa, and when he says he’s “heard nothing” it likely means that the generals don’t want a war with Iran and haven’t been instructed to prepare for one (hint: Obama would do the instructing). If Powell is acting as a spokesman for significant elements in the officer corps, they could be trying to signal through him that they are prepared to live with a nuclear Iran, just as they had lived with a nuclear Soviet Union– in preference to opening yet another front with a military that is already over-stretched.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, contrary to what The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Golberg recently attempted to imply, likely doesn’t have the cojones to attack Iran on his own, without a green light from Washington. He thinks Bill Clinton eased him out of power the last time he was prime minister, for obstructing the Oslo peace process and for trying to poison Khaled Mashaal to death. Moreover, Israel does not have the technical ability to strike Iran and get its pilots back.
The Neocons will just have to wait a few years for their war, if they get it at all. If they get it, the rest of us won’t like what it does to our country and our lives.