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WPost Pushes Confrontation with Iran

By Melvin A. Goodman
October 3, 2009

Editor’s Note: One might have thought that the Washington Post’s dismal performance in the run-up to war with Iraq – offering a near solid phalanx of misguided opinion about the certainty of Saddam Hussein’s WMD and the necessity for war – might have led to a shake-up of its opinion pages in the ensuing six years.

But the line-up of neocon opinion leaders remains largely intact as the Post again beats the drum for confrontation – this time with Iran – and mocks U.S. officials who see hope for negotiations, as former CIA analyst Melvin A. Goodman notes in this guest essay:

The neocon editorial writers at the Washington Post used the run-up to the Geneva meetings between the United States and Iran to marginalize the significance of the negotiations, to endorse a policy of confrontation against Iran, and even to support steps to bring down the regime in Tehran.

Not even the apparent success of the talks led to any change in the Post’s editorial views.

Their positions are consistent with previous militant stands favoring increased military deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the Post’s criticism of the decisions to forego missile deployments in East Europe and to seek new arms control and disarmament agreements with Russia.

The strategic mindset of the Post has no room for diplomacy, engagement and disarmament, and — as a result — missed the significance of the Geneva meetings.

The Geneva meetings marked the most extensive talks in 30 years between U.S. and Iranian officials, offered the opportunity to reduce Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium, set a diplomatic clock for a solution to the nuclear issue, and demonstrated an important example of secret U.S.-Russian-French diplomacy to address the problem of nuclear proliferation.

The Western powers will have to hold Iranian feet to the fire on these issues, but Iran’s agreement to allow international inspection of the nuclear facility near Qom within two weeks will offer an immediate test of Tehran’s willingness to cooperate. 

Iran has regularly lied to UN and IAEA officials on nuclear matters, which created very low expectations for the Geneva meeting, but the results thus far point to a major turning point.

Over the past several days, Post op-ed writers as well as guest columnists have focused on the instability of the Tehran government and argued that the proper mix of internal pressures could bring down the current government.

All of these writers focus on the danger of nuclear weapons in the hands of the Iranian leadership, they ignore the national intelligence estimates from 2007-2009 that concluded Iran gave up its nuclear weapons program in 2003. 

It should also be added that Iran sent a strong conciliatory message to the United States in 2003, when it suspended its enrichment of uranium, but resumed its enrichment efforts two years later when the Bush administration not only failed to respond, but endorsed clandestine and military measures against Tehran.

The most reckless advice at this possibly critical juncture comes from Post editorial writer Anne Applebaum, who wants the Obama administration to “increase funding for dissident exile groups, smuggle money into the country,” and to “bombard Iranian airwaves with anti-regime television.”

She ignores the fact that the United States and the Central Intelligence Agency are not exactly strangers to domestic intervention in Iran, having sponsored the overthrow of the democratically elected government in 1953 in order to install the Shah of Iran whose corrupt regime was topped 26 years later.

Applebaum believes that her recommended steps would “unnerve” President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. It is more likely that U.S. intervention would unnerve and discredit the political opposition in Tehran.

Op-ed writer Robert Kagan, a senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (!), supports “crippling sanctions” that would not necessarily topple the regime but would have a chance to succeed if they were a part of the “right mix of internal opposition and foreign pressure.”

He ignores the fact that sanctions rarely work anywhere, that there is insufficient support for additional sanctions, and that — most importantly — the Iranian opposition itself strongly opposes the use of sanctions against Iran.

On the eve of the talks, Iran’s top opposition leader, Mir Hussein Moussavi, issued a statement against tougher sanctions because they would hurt the opposition movement and ordinary citizens. 

Kagan believes that any autocratic regime’s biggest fear is that domestic opponents may gain the support of powerful foreign patrons. In the case of Iran, however, foreign support for opposition groups or sanctions against the government would be counter-productive and permit Ahmadinejad and his Revolutionary Guards to take more repressive measures.

It is also noteworthy that the Iranian opposition movement supports the nuclear program of the Ahmadinejad government as well as the current talks between Iran and the permanent members of the UN Security Council.

The day after the agreement, op-ed writer Michael Gerson continued to support an Israeli military attack against Iranian nuclear facilities and incorrectly pointed to the Israeli attack against Iraq’s Osiraq nuclear reactor in 1981 as a success. 

Most experts, however, have questioned the effectiveness of the Israeli raid on the Osiraq reactor. The attack simply intensified Saddam Hussein’s determination to acquire nuclear weapons and drove the Iraqi nuclear program underground or to camouflaged civilian installations.

As a result, U.S. intelligence was not fully aware of the Iraqi nuclear program and the extent of the intelligence failure was not made known until after the Desert Storm operation. Most of the facilities committed to the nuclear program escaped attack during the military campaign in 1991.

Charles Krauthammer, the Post’s most zealous armchair warrior, castigated President Barack Obama for selling out Poland and the Czech Republic by abrogating a missile defense agreement for East Europe and for giving Iran “precious time” to develop nuclear weapons.

He referred to the president as “feckless,” and made no reference to the adroit diplomacy between the United States, Russia and France that will have Russia reprocess Iranian uranium and will have France convert the enriched uranium into fuel rods. This is an unprecedented diplomatic arrangement presumably beyond Krauthammer’s ken.

The editorial in Friday’s Washington Post falsely argued that President Obama’s first diplomatic encounter with Iran “had much in common” with the Bush administration’s encounter in 2008. Undersecretary of State William Burns was the negotiator on both occasions, but in 2008 he had no ability to engage the Iranians substantively on any issue. 

On Thursday, however, Burns and Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili held a private meeting for 45 minutes that included a “frank discussion” of human rights issues. The opposition of the Post to these talks is reaching a level of journalistic fanaticism.

Naturally, there can only be low expectations for negotiations at this time in view of the long period of strain and even hostility in U.S.-Iranian relations, but there is every reason to engage in discussions that could lead to a breakthrough in these relations.

In the wake of Desert Storm, Iran offered U.S. oil companies an opportunity to take part in oil exploration in Iran, but the Clinton administration refused support for such activities and the oil companies lost their nerve.

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the United States and Iran held successful secret talks on security issues that involved common concerns regarding Central Asia and Afghanistan, but the Bush administration refused to follow-up these talks and instead relied on a policy of coercion.

There are many elements of the current situation, however, that suggest broad strategic discussions that avoid polemics and accusations could lead to some unanimity on regional security in the Persian Gulf, some understanding on the dangers of international terrorism, and even some transparency on Iran’s nuclear activities.

The United States and other permanent members of the Security Council as well as Iran have nothing to lose at this point and much to gain.

Melvin A. Goodman, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and adjunct professor of government at Johns Hopkins University, spent 42 years with the CIA, the National War College, and the U.S. Army. His latest book is Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA. [This story originally appeared at The Public Record.]

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