Influencing US policy toward Iran,
Conference at New York University
Progressive American-Iranian Committee
On 3 December 2008, a group of “Iran experts” and scholars will be participating in a one day conference to debate the US policy toward Iran. This meeting, far from a usual experts’ gathering, is part of a broader campaign which aims to influence Obama’s policy with regards to Iran.
This new campaign started in early 2008 following the formation of the “Campaign for a new policy toward Iran“. This coalition included the Islamic Republic’s lobbyist groups and individuals. Their main objective was set to prevent the Congress to adopt any serious measures against the Iranian government. So far, they have been successful in shelving the H.R. 362 which originally intended to advise the president on more economic sanctions against Iran. Consequential to this success, a few weeks ago, a sizeable number of the same experts founded a new group, this time called “American Foreign Policy project“. They began their efforts by releasing a joint statement signed by 21 experts on Iran. In this statement, they urged the new administration to lift the sanctions and to be more lenient toward Iran.
This joint statement was presented during a Congressional briefing hosted by the National Iranian American Council (NIAC). Surprisingly, the famous statement is mainly a reprint of an older report released one year earlier by NIAC’s president Trita Parsi. This group is better known as “the Iranian lobby” by the government press in Tehran.
Now, this campaign has been extended to the academic boundaries. One such example would be the forthcoming conference to be held at the NYU Center for Dialogue. This conference, similar to the expert’s report, tries to give more gravity to the same policy advice; that the Iranian regime is stable, the US should forgo the sanctions and it should grant a good share of the Middle East to IRI. Interestingly, Gholamali Khoshroo, the former Iranian deputy foreign minister, also appears on the list of the University meeting speakers. Khoshroo’s presence by itself is a good indication of the aims and objectives of this conference and clearly reveals the nature, the direction and the intentions of this event.
The important issue however, is the timing of this large-scale campaign. This reminds us of two other similar previous events; one in 1997 and the other in 2004 when the US was at a turning point each time to shape its policy on Iran. On both occasions, a campaign was launched to influence the decision makers. On both occasions the recommendations were to show flexibility with the Iranian regime. On both occasions, the administration followed the prescription and as a result, Iran got into a stronger position to the detriment of the US’s disposition.
In 1997, Mohammad Khatami was elected as president. With his election, “Iran experts” advocated that the reform movements would be irreversible in Iran. As we know, the Clinton administration was largely influenced by this campaign and unilaterally rewarded the Iranian regime with a series of incentives; some dearly costly to the United States. On 23 November 2004, Kenneth Pollack (Director for Persian Gulf affairs at the National Security Council) told the Saban Center:
“In the Clinton Administration in 1999 and 2000, we tried, very hard, to put the grand bargain on the table. And we tried. We made 12 separate gestures to Iran to try to demonstrate to them that we really meant it, and we were really willing to go the full nine yards and put all of these big carrots on the table if the Iranians were willing to give us what we needed. And the Iranians couldn’t.”
The second occasion was in 2004 nearing the end of Khatami’s period in the office followed by the emergence of Ahmadinejad. Again, the “Iran experts” argued that although the reformists were leaving the power posts, but the pragmatists were ascending. The US once again adopted the soft approach toward Tehran. This period can be best explained by making reference to Secretary Robert Gates. In his speech, at National Defense University on September 29 he said:
“And of course, in the 2004 or (200)5 study that I co-chaired with Brzezinski for the Council on Foreign Relations with respect to U.S. policy on Iran, given the fact that President Khatami was in power, sounded more moderate — at least was not making some of the outrageous statements that Ahmadinejad does — we said, “It’s worth reaching out to them.”
Gates is well placed to appraise the outcome of this erroneous approach:
“I have been involved in the search for the elusive Iranian moderate for 30 years. (Laughter.) I was in the first meeting that took place between a senior U.S. government official and the leadership of the Iranian government in Algiers at the end of October, 1979.
Every administration since 1979 has reached out to the Iranians in one way or another and all have failed. Some have gotten into deep trouble associated with their failures, but the reality is the Iranian leadership has been consistently unyielding over a very long period of time in response to repeated overtures from the United States about having a different and better kind of relationship.”
Once again, we are placed at yet another turning point in the US politics to shape its course of action toward Iran. Again the same “Iran experts” are getting involved and are running their own shows. This time though, there are no reformists or pragmatists in power in Tehran. Once again we hear the same campaign waffles coming from the Iranian lobbyist groups for the US to adopt a more amicable practice with Iran; this time though, simply because Bush was not peaceful enough. Will Obama be manipulated by this campaign?
This time the progressive Iranian community will be on the scene to stave off such déjà vu.