Just because the White House may be on the verge of halting talks with Iran does not mean that the State Department will follow suit.
As previously reported here in NRO, State’s policy guru, Richard Haass, had plans to make one last attempt at “engaging” Iran before stepping down next month to take the lucrative post as head of the Council on Foreign Relations — and sources familiar with his efforts say he is doing his best to realize his dreams.
The Foggy Bottom official who has most openly supported and advanced Haass’s goal of establishing a “dialogue” with the mullahs — State’s Iran desk officer, Jillian Burns — was recently given a promotion. Burns is slated to become the Iran adviser for Zalmay Khalilzad, the “special envoy” who has been floated from Afghanistan to Iraq and now to Iran, leaving a mess behind in his wake in each place. Khalilzad has jumped on the engagement bandwagon with glee, leading the most recent round of “talks.” These meetings have succeeded in bolstering a fading regime by reaffirming its legitimacy.
The Washington Post gave an indication on Sunday that Foggy Bottom officials may grudgingly embrace a new White House tough-on-Iran policy. But recent history suggests otherwise.
As the biggest booster for continuing “talks” with the Iranian mullahs, Haass has the most incentive to carry on secret negotiations with the mullahs. It would not be the first time he’s conducted foreign policy independent of and contrary to White House policy. One month after Iran was named an “axis of evil” nation, Haass went to the Middle East and told Israeli officials that they needed to “engage” the mullahs. And earlier this year, Haass was one of the leaders to undermine the president’s determination to not give into North Korean demands for one-on-one talks. This January, he sent out a cable blasting the White House approach in what on administration official labeled a “broadside.”
If Haass is effectively restricted from arranging official sit-downs with the Iranian mullahs, he may go through back channels to achieve a similar end result. Earlier this month, Haass protégé Flynt Leverett had a “chat” with a former head of Iran’s military at a political conference in Athens. After ten years of government service, Leverett attended the conference just days after leaving the taxpayer payroll. In an e-mail he sent to a listserv for academics, policy wonks, and journalists, Leverett maintains, “I made sure the Iranians knew that I was no longer an official, and did not represent the Administration.” But was it clear?
The Iranian with whom Leverett had his “informal” conversation is himself not a government official — though he still is very much a power broker, with protégés of his dotting the top echelons of the Iranian government. It is most likely that Iran saw Leverett in that light. Leverett was not just a recent retiree, he is personally and professionally close to Haass. And Leverett did not exactly treat the matter as one private citizen conversing with another — which, obviously, the whole affair would not have happened if that was the case — as Haass’s good friend reported back the contents of the conversation “to appropriate US officials.” Given his relationship with Haass and the policy planner’s intimate role in all Iran-related affairs, it seems likely that Leverett was referring to at least Haass in the category of “appropriate US officials.”
It is not clear if Leverett’s supposedly spontaneous meeting was pre-cleared by Haass or anyone else at State, but it is clear he exercised the same judgment used by other Foggy Bottom officials. The man Leverett so happily met with was Mohsen Rezai, the former head Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Rezai is an active supporter of Hezbollah, which has killed more Americans than any other terrorist outfit besides al Qaeda. Rezai has also long been suspected of ties to a deadly attack in Lebanon in 1983 that killed 238 U.S. troops.
This is sadly not a far cry from some of the people State was trying to groom as successors to Saddam — including one former foreign minister openly backed by the House of Saud and one man suspected of direct involvement of the gassing of the Kurds — rather than have any true small-”d” democrats from the Iraqi National Congress heading a transitional authority.
The only effective way for the White House to keep State in check — to the extent that is possible — is by replacing Haass with someone loyal to the White House. But State’s number-two, Richard Armitage, is poised to name the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, a careerist, to the post. The Armitage appointment would make tyrants seeking legitimacy through “engagement” with the U.S. very happy.
— Joel Mowbray is an NRO contributor and a Townhall.com columnist. Mowbray is the author of the upcoming Dangerous Diplomacy: How the State Department Endangers America’s Security.