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REACHING OUT TO IRAN: NEGOTIATION OR REGIME CHANGE?

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Every once in while, Congress gets it right.

It got it right last week when it defeated Senator Rick Santorum's proposal to appropriate $100 million to promote pro-democracy efforts in Iran.

The vote came after an impassioned plea from Senator Joe Biden, a Delaware Democrat and the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Biden said the amendment to the defense spending bill by the conservative Pennsylvania Republican - which would also have expanded sanctions against Iran and anyone who helps it acquire nuclear technology - would handcuff the Bush Administration as it works with other major powers to negotiate an end to Iran's nuclear ambitions.

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Biden's plea managed to attract enough Republicans to defeat the Santorum measure by a 54-45 vote.

Instead, the Senate voted 99-0 to support the decision, announced by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on May 31, that the United States would join other Western states in engaging Iran in negotiations and offering a package of incentives if Tehran suspends its uranium enrichment activities.

Santorum's proposal was in line with a bill passed by the House last April, over the objections of the administration. The administration said the House bill would limit the flexibility it needed to reach a diplomatic solution to the deadlock over Iran's nuclear program.

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President Bush's 180-degree turn on direct negotiations with Iran clearly represents a defeat for the super-hawks who have been urging military action - and arguably an act of desperation for an administration that has run out of good options.

But in spite of the defeat of the Santorum proposal, the Bush Administration's Iran policy still faces some basic contradictions. For example, should Iran decide to come to the table, the US will still find itself negotiating at the same time it is stepping up its "soft power" efforts to "democratize" the country through broadcasting, cultural exchanges, and support for dissident political parties, labor unions and human rights organizations.

Such pro-democracy efforts, however, are seen by many experts as nothing more than euphemisms for regime change, and question whether such programs are likely to help or hinder the nuclear negotiations.

But equally important are questions about the content and effectiveness of such programs as well as how committed the Administration is to a pro-democracy agenda.

As to credibility and commitment, the potential of soft-power initiatives must be measured against the backdrop of what many in Iran (and elsewhere) see as the hypocrisies and contradictions of US foreign policy. America's credibility as the world's champion of human rights has been diminished by such issues as the invasion of Iraq, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, renditions, excessive secrecy, and what appears through Middle East eyes to be a U.S. policy blindly tilted in favor of Israel. And, as evidenced by its dealings with countries like Egypt, Libya, and Saudi Arabia, the Bush Administration has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to abandon its democracy agenda in favor of recruiting partners for the "Global War on Terror" and cultivating cozy relationships with energy-rich countries, even if they are ruled by dictators.

As to the effectiveness of the "soft power" initiatives currently being implemented or discussed, the situation is even murkier and more complex.

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After the 1978 Islamic Revolution in Iran - the hostage-taking and the end of US-Iran diplomatic relations -- the US effectively ignored that country. Iran did not again become a priority for the US Government until 2003, when some of our officials awakened to the reality that Iran was next door to Iraq, and thus positioned to do good or mischief. It was mooted that there would be discussions between the Iranian Government and US Ambassador to Iraq, but as far as we know, this never happened.

What did happen was that President Bush - at the urging of Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice - decided that using the Europeans as surrogate negotiators simply wasn't working, and that the US needed to participate in direct negotiations over the nuclear issue.

In the months during which Bush's major policy change was being battled out within the Administration, the State Department was already tooling up for a renaissance of "public diplomacy" directed toward Iran. This planning started from a baseline of almost zero.

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William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East and elsewhere for the US State Department and the US Agency for International Development. He served in the international affairs area in the Kennedy Administration and now (more...)
 
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