Politics & Policy

Mullah Crossroads

State faces a decision about direction of policy toward Iranian mullahs.

With the departure Friday of the State Department’s leading cheerleader for engagement of the Iranian mullahs — and the continued demonstrations of thousands of students protesting those same leaders — Foggy Bottom is at a crossroads. Choosing a different path — one of supporting the cause of freedom in “axis of evil” nation Iran — is unlikely, however, as most of State’s professional diplomats back the failed policy of “engaging” the oppressive regime.

Protesters in Iran have made international headlines for about a week now, as thousands of students in Tehran have clashed with thugs on the mullahs’ payroll who were trying to prevent peaceful demonstrations. The Washington Post estimates that some 3,000 students are demonstrating, and the New York Times reports that protests have spread to areas outside of the capital of Tehran.

#ad#Although State’s number-two official Richard Armitage called Iran a “democracy” earlier this year, the country is dominated by an unelected cabal of twelve, known as the Council of Guardians. The panel vets all candidates for president and parliament — including so-called “reformers” — and has the authority to veto any legislation enacted by the legislature. What power they don’t have rests in the hands of the “Supreme Leader,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who controls the military, the police, the press, the judiciary, the oil industry, and most corporations that trade with the West. To the extent there are true reformers in the government, they have little practical power. Yet the U.S. State Department persists in its belief that talks with Iran will yield tangible results and somehow empower the “reformers,” most of whom are lackeys for the mullahs — and all of whom were deemed acceptable by the mullahs to hold office in the first place.

Until May 12 — the date of the al Qaeda bombing in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia that may have been connected to cells operating openly inside Iran — State had been carrying on talks with the Iranian mullahs. The substance of the talks may have been rather limited, insists an administration official who says, “State was kept on a pretty tight leash.” Talking points and discussion items for the meeting were cleared through an interagency process, and the conciliatory tone State officials wanted was scuttled in favor of a harsher one. But neither the substance nor the tone was the sore point for those inside and outside the administration who support Iran’s burgeoning freedom movement; the fact that they took place at all was the problem.

“Engaging” leaders in any way is a tacit acknowledgement of legitimacy, particularly when their very basis for rule is being challenged from within. The Iranian regime is one that has done almost nothing to redeem itself since President Bush named it a member of the “axis evil,” as the mullahs continue to oppress the Iranian people while at the same time actively pursuing the development of nuclear weapons. Some estimates cited in a Washington Post story Sunday are that Iran could have nuclear weapons as soon as 2006. The mullahs, though, could actually obtain nukes sooner than that. “It would be 2006 if Iran received no outside help whatsoever,” notes an informed source.

Iran’s dogged pursuit of an assortment of weapons of mass destruction, however, has done little to dampen the enthusiasm of now-departed director of policy planning at State, Richard Haass, whose last day was Friday. Haass, who left to become the head of the Council on Foreign Relations, was by all accounts the primary force driving the policy of “engagement” with Iran. Even when “engagement” was absolutely not the policy of the administration, in fact, Haass was pushing for it. One month after the “axis of evil” speech, Haass told Israeli officials that they would need to “engage” Iran. It’s not that Haass likes the mullahs or approves of their reprehensible conduct; he sincerely believes that the U.S. would lose its ability to “influence” the mullahs if it did not engage them. He is not the only one who clings to this dangerously misguided belief.

Even with Haass out of the picture, the State Department has a number of officials remaining who support Iranian engagement, despite any evidence suggesting that the mullahs have tempered their actions as a result. Meghan O’Sullivan, Haass’s protégé at the Brookings Institution until following him to State in 2001, strongly backs engagement, as does Deputy Secretary of State Armitage. Both will undoubtedly push for further talks and negotiations with the ruthless regime, though it is unclear to what extent they will succeed. “We’re probably going to be stuck somewhere between what we should be doing and a really bad initiative that some people want (to work with the mullahs),” predicts an administration official who believes the U.S. should openly and strongly support dissidents and protesting students as part of a strategy to undermine the existing regime.

In the midst of the ongoing protests, State has offered words of support to the students, with a message delivered directly by the world’s most famous foreign policy leader. Secretary of State Colin Powell says that the U.S. wants to speak directly with the people of Iran, “over the heads of their leaders to let them know that we agree with them.” But no matter how heartfelt Powell’s message may have been, the words might have rung hollow in light of State’s desire to “engage” the mullahs — not to mention precedent from last year.

On July 9 last year, thousands of protestors marked the three-year anniversary of a brutal police crackdown on peaceful demonstrators at Tehran University. When asked if the U.S. had any message for the students protesting the mullahs, State press flack Richard Boucher responded simply, “No.” This was the determined policy of the State Department, because officials there did not want to “anger” the ruling mullahs, according to an administration official.

Thankfully, the President did not care about angering the mullahs, and on July 12, Bush released the following statement supporting the protesters: “We have seen throughout history the power of one simple idea: when given a choice, people will choose freedom. As we have witnessed over the past few days, the people of Iran want the same freedoms, human rights, and opportunities as people around the world. Their government should listen to their hopes.” He finished his message, which the State Department opposed, by telling the demonstrators, “As Iran’s people move towards a future defined by greater freedom, greater tolerance, they will have no better friend than the United States of America.” If only State wanted President Bush’s vision to become a reality.

— 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.

Joel Mowbray — Richard Lowry graduated in 1990 from the University of Virginia, where he studied English and history. He edited there a conservative monthly magazine called the Virginia Advocate. He went on ...

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