- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 31, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Barack Obama is backtracking furiously from his public statements supporting unconditional negotiations with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Last summer, Mr. Obama stated unequivocally that he would hold direct talks with American enemies. He was asked during a presidential debate in July if he would “be willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries?” Mr. Obama replied, “I would,” adding: “I think that it is a disgrace that we have not spoken to them.”

Some of the candidate’s aides were uncomfortable with his blanket endorsement of the idea, and tried to persuade Mr. Obama to qualify his answer. But during a conference call the following day, Mr. Obama defended his remarks and said they showed how he differed from other candidates. Mr. Obama’s own campaign Web site boasts under the heading of “diplomacy”: “Barack Obama is the only major candidate who supports tough, direct presidential diplomacy with Iran without preconditions.” But Mr. Obama has come under withering fire from John McCain, who questions whether it would be useful to negotiate with someone like Mr. Ahmadinejad.

Indeed, even prominent Democrats are distancing themselves from Mr. Obama’s call for unconditional talks with Iran - among them are Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joe Biden, former U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson and former Sen. Gary Hart. Mr. Richardson, who has met with the likes of Fidel Castro and Saddam Hussein, said meeting Mr. Ahmadinejad without preconditions would be a bad idea. Mr. Biden said that Mr. Obama “gave the wrong answer” during the Democratic debate, but added that his freshman Senate colleague has “learned a hell of a lot since then.”

More recently, Mr. Obama has tried to qualify his comments. He said he would break with the Bush administration policy of refusing to meet with certain countries unless they meet preconditions. But Mr. Obama said he would reserve the right to choose which leaders he would meet with - if he chooses to meet them at all.

Lost in all the talk is this: Since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Democratic and Republican administrations have attempted to negotiate with the Islamic Republic of Iran. And a strong case can be made that all have failed - in some cases with disastrous consequences. For example, on Nov. 1, 1979, then-President Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who now advises Mr. Obama, met in Algiers with Iranian Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan - a relatively powerless Iranian “moderate” - in an effort to ease tensions between Washington and Tehran. In response, student radicals seized the U.S. Embassy in Iran and began the hostage crisis that continued until the day of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration as president in January 1981. Although Mr. Reagan was masterful in winning the Cold War, he didn’t fare much better than Mr. Carter and Mr. Brzezinski in negotiating with Iran - as evidenced by the failed effort to win the release of American hostages abducted by Iran’s Lebanese ally Hezbollah.

The Clinton administration made an all-out push for dialogue following the election of Mohammed Khatami, a relative moderate, as president in 1997. The administration backed away from enforcing the 1996 Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, which targeted foreign companies that invest in the Iranian oil and gas industries. According to FBI Director Louis Freeh, the Clinton administration dragged its feet in investigating the June 1996 bombing of Khobar Towers, a U.S. housing facility in Saudi Arabia. Nineteen American servicemen were killed in the bombing, carried out by a Saudi offshoot of Hezbollah. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright went so far as to apologize for the U.S. role in the 1953 coup that brought the Shah to power. But in the end, negotiations collapsed as Iran demanded reparations from the United States and Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei denounced rapprochement with Washington as treason.

One myth spread by Mr. Obama and the Democrats is that the Bush administration has refused to talk with Iran. In fact, late in 2001, Washington and Tehran were cooperating on Afghanistan. But that cooperation came after Israel captured the Karine-A, a ship carrying Iranian-supplied weapons to Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority. Subsequent efforts to engage with Tehran foundered when Washington learned that the Islamic Republic was harboring al Qaeda terror suspects. During President Bush’s second term, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, responding to European calls for dialogue with Iran, announced that Washington would drop its opposition to Iranian membership in the World Trade Organization (among other concessions) if it halted its nuclear weapons activities. In response, Iran’s ruling clerics have continued their support for terrorism and installed Mr. Ahmadinejad as president.

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