Key Neo-Cons Giving Up on Iran Attack?

While hard-line neo-conservatives associated with the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), Commentary, and the Wall Street Journal editorial page (See Bret Stephens column, “The NIE Fantasy”, today) continue to rage against last week’s National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, two key — if more pragmatic — movement leaders appear to now be resigned to the fact that, barring a particularly provocative move by Tehran, the Bush administration is highly unlikely to carry out an attack against Iran before its term expires.

I hope to write an article about this development for IPS in the coming days, but Robert Kagan’s column, “Time to talk to Iran,” which appeared in the Washington Post last Wednesday (but which I read only over the weekend as I was catching up with a two-week accumulation of newspapers), marks a major turning point in the debate over Iran policy. Not only does he state flatly, “[t]he Bush administration cannot take military action against Iran during its remaining time in office, or credibly threaten to do so, unless it is in response to an extremely provocative Iranian action,” but he goes on to argue that there is now ”a good case for negotiations” on a range of issues, including those which Iran offered to talk about in April-May, 2003 (to which, however, he does not allude). In other words, Robert Kagan, co-founder of the Project for the New American Century, believes it’s worth testing the notion that a “grand bargain” is possible. He’s not happy about it, but that’s his conclusion.

While his PNAC co-founder, Bill Kristol, doesn’t go nearly as far in embracing the notion of negotiations with Tehran, his lead editorial in the latest edition of the Weekly Standard, “What Happened in 2003?”, offers a mixture both of indignation against the NIE and resignation that it marks the end of the chances for a U.S. attack on Iran before Bush’s term expires. Bush’s task over the next year, he argues, is to try to restore U.S. credibility — including military credibility — by achieving “victory” in Iraq. Here’s the last paragraph:

“The complete and unequivocal defeat of al Qaeda and of Iranian-backed proxies in Iraq is the best way to show Iran that the United States is a serious power to be reckoned with in the region. Resisting the temptation to throw away success in Iraq by drawing down too fast or too deep is the greatest service this president can render his successor. Only if Bush wins in Iraq will the next president have a reasonable chance to defeat the threat of a nuclear-weapons-seeking Islamic Republic of Iran.”

So Kristol appears to have given up — however reluctantly (Remember, it was his publication which featured¬† Kimberley Kagan’s piece late last summer that lay the groundwork for a military attack on Iran based on its alleged interference in Iraq) — on the idea of a military attack on Iran in the next year.

Kristol and Kagan have obviously been the leading lights of the — for lack of a better word — “moderate” wing of the neo-conservative movement since the mid-1990s when they co-authored their influential article, “Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy” in Foreign Affairs and went on to found PNAC the following year. Unlike neo-con hardliners like Norman Podhoretz or Richard Perle and his numerous proteges — some of whom, like Danielle Pletka and Frank Gaffney and Podhoretz himself, have all but accused the NIE’s authors of deliberate deception — scattered around Washington, the two have generally been less wedded to the views of former Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. For example, while the hardliners opposed former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s disengagement from Gaza, Kristol and Kagan lined up behind Sharon, even when he deserted Likud to form Kadima.

Of the two columns, Kagan’s is, of course, the more notable, simply because he believes Washington has no choice at this point but to engage with Iran in a way that the administration until now has never considered. That Kagan has been close to Elliott Abrams since they worked together in the State Department back in the 1980s makes his latest position — which now approaches that of Americans for Peace Now (which called today for unconditional U.S. engagement with Iran) — all the more remarkable.
Kagan’s advice has also been echoed in recent days by two other influential voices identified with or previously embraced by the neo-conservative movement. In a column in the Washington Times today. ‘Roll Call’ columnist Morton Kondracke called for Bush to “drop his objections to direct talks with the Iranians,” even while he insisted that Washington should continue to push for more sanctions against Tehran. He still sounds very hawkish on Iran but appears to have given up on the idea that Bush will take military action against Iran, arguing, ”the question of whether to go to war …is gone.” Over the weekend, British historian Niall Ferguson, whose neo-imperial views have long been embraced by the neo-conservatives, explicitly agreed in his Financial Times column with Kagan’s analysis — that “the time may well have arrived to rethink US policy towards Iran,” although he thinks “it just is not in this president’s nature to beat his sword into a plowshare” and that, in any event, “it seems doubtful the Iranians would take such a volte-face seriously.” He goes on to call for Bush’s successor to offer Tehran “a grand bargain” — economic assistance and diplomatic rapprochement for a renunciation of nuclear weapons and terrorism.” He thinks John McCain is the candidate who could best pull that off.

Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.