Monday, July 19, 2004

Wired News | Lack of Iran Contacts Said Harming U.S. Interests

Wired News | Lack of Iran Contacts Said Harming U.S. Interests: "Lack of Iran Contacts Said Harming U.S. Interests

By Carol Giacomo, Diplomatic Correspondent

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The lack of sustained engagement with Iran over the last 25 years is harming U.S. interests at a time when America is engaged to an unprecedented extent in the Middle East and Central Asia, according to a panel of experts and former U.S. officials.

In a report published on Monday by the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank, the panel warned that "overcoming the absence of any U.S.-Iranian contacts may be the only alternative to ... force" to assuage U.S. concerns about Iran's behavior. It recommended that Washington change its approach to a "selective" engagement with Iran that includes incentives, like the prospect of U.S. commercial ties, as well as penalties, in an effort to resolve a growing nuclear problem and stabilize the Middle East,

The findings were released during a U.S. election campaign that is focused on President Bush's foreign policy leadership and amid rising American fears that Iran is galloping ahead in a quest to build a nuclear bomb. Throughout its tenure, Bush's administration has been divided over whether to reach out to Iran after a quarter-century of hostility or to toughen its approach. Democratic presidential challenger John Kerry has signaled an interest in greater engagement with Tehran.

The task force, chaired by former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and former CIA Director Robert Gates, concluded that "the current lack of sustained engagement with Iran harms U.S. interests in a critical region of the world and that direct dialogue with Tehran on specific areas of mutual concern should be pursued."

DIALOGUE URGED

A U.S.-Iran political dialogue should not be deferred until differences over Iran's nuclear ambitions and its involvement in regional conflicts have been resolved, the report said. "Rather, the process of selective political engagement itself represents a potentially effective path for addressing those differences" as was seen in U.S. engagement with China and the former Soviet Union. Lying "at the heart of the arc of the crisis in the Middle East," Iran has such intricate ties to Iraq and Afghanistan -- sites of major U.S. military operations -- that it is a "critical actor" in both countries' postwar evolution, the report added.

The report called Iran's nuclear ambitions "one of the most urgent issues" facing the United States. Task force members were divided on whether Tehran is fully committed to developing a nuclear weapon. But they agreed that, even while cooperating with U.N. nuclear monitors, Iran will continue "attempting to conceal the scope of its nuclear program in order to keep its options open as long as possible."

Iran hid its nuclear activities for 18 years until they were exposed by an Iranian opposition group in 2002 and then inspected by the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency. Tehran denies U.S. charges it is using a civilian nuclear program to conceal a covert bid for nuclear arms. Some U.S. estimates say Iran could have a nuclear bomb by 2006 if no steps are taken to slow the program.

The panel rejected a "grand bargain" that would seek to settle comprehensively all U.S.-Iran conflicts, including U.S. allegations that Iran backs terrorism, undermines Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts and stirs problems in Iraq.

The United States and Iran have not had diplomatic ties since the 1979 Islamic revolution when student fundamentalists held 52 American hostages for 444 days.
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