Wednesday, November 29, 2006

One of the worst-kept secrets in Washington is the Iraq Study Group’s expected recommendation that the United States negotiate over Iraq’s future with rogue regimes in Iran and Syria — whose support for terrorist groups and militias helped turn post-Saddam Iraq into a powderkeg in the first place. Administration critics depict the Bush approach to dealing with Iran and Syria as essentially an across-the-board refusal to engage in substantive talks.

But this is silly: Syria has an embassy in Washington and the United States has one in Damascus, and all three countries are represented in organizations such as the United Nations. Since September 11, the Bush administration has discussed issues, including Afghanistan, Iraq and al Qaeda with Iran and Syria. What really bothers Mr. Bush’s critics is his refusal to hold higher-level, higher-profile talks with Iran and Syria that would amount to a public-relations windfall for these regimes. They disregard the fact that the Bush administration — like many of its predecessors — has tried time and again to resolve differences with Tehran and Damascus at the most senior levels. With both governments, the result has been a nearly unbroken series of diplomatic failures dating back to Jimmy Carter’s presidency.

In the wake of the Iranian Revolution, then-President Carter was determined to improve relations with the Islamist regime. So, he sent National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski to meet Iranian Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan, a relative moderate, on Nov. 1, 1979, in Algiers. Iranian radicals loyal to Ayatollah Khomeini responded three days later by seizing the American embassy in Tehran — putting an end to any possibility of rapprochement. In 1985 and 1986, then-President Reagan tried unsuccessfully to sell arms to Iran in exchange for the release of American hostages. In 1998, after Mohammed Khatami was elected, Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright moved to weaken U.S. sanctions on Iran; former FBI Director Louis Freeh maintains that Mr. Clinton dragged his feet in the investigation of the 1996 bombing of the U.S. military barracks at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, in which 19 American servicemen died. It all came to naught when the regime responded by demanding that Washington pay reparations to the Iranian people and denounced improved relations with Washington as “treason.”

Other U.S. efforts to engage Tehran collapsed due to Iranian provocations. Cooperation on Afghanistan ground to a halt in early 2002, after Israel captured the Karine-A, a ship carrying 50 tons of weapons to Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority. In May 2003, Washington broke off talks after Iran was found harboring al Qaeda leaders implicated in suicide attacks which killed Americans. Last year, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice dropped U.S. opposition to Iran’s admission to the World Trade Organization and agreed to the transfer of spare aircraft parts in exchange for Tehran’s coming clean about its nuclear program — something it still refuses to do.

The pattern with Syria was similar, dating back to Damascus’ spurning Mr. Carter’s efforts to persuade it to join Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in making peace with Israel. During the 1990s, Syria worked to sabotage the Clinton administration’s efforts to attain an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement. Between 2001 and February 2005, the Bush administration sent five senior-level U.S. delegations to Syria in an effort to persuade President Bashar Assad to change his behavior on terrorism and his subversion of Lebanese independence; all of those efforts failed.

In sum, the burden of proof is on advocates of engagement to show that this time, high-level negotiations with Tehran and Damascus will achieve something useful.

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