Special Report

Talking to Syria and Iran

What else has the U.S. been doing for nearly three decades?

By 12.4.06

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As Washington waits breathlessly for luminaries like Jim Baker, Lee Hamilton, Vernon Jordan, Sandra Day O'Connor and the rest of the Iraq Study Group to tell us what to do about Iraq, it's past time to knock down a myth that appears to be driving the panel's deliberations: the notion that the Bush administration's refusal to talk with Iran and Syria is the reason for our inability to stabilize Iraq. The premise -- pushed by Democratic politicians and others -- is absolutely false. The people pushing this, among them Jimmy Carter and Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Sen. Chuck Hagel, seem intent on sandbagging President Bush into negotiating from a position of weakness over some form of "grand bargain" with some of our most deadly enemies. But the fact is that plenty of engagement has already been taking place. For one thing, Syria retains an embassy in Washington; and the United States has one in Damascus. As for Iran, there are plenty of opportunities for the United States to talk with it in forums such as the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency, where both states are represented. And America has been trying for decades to resolve differences diplomatically with both regimes. Since the September 11 attacks, Washington has held discussions with Tehran and Damascus on a wide array of issues, including matters such as Afghanistan; al Qaeda's international terror networks; Iraq; Lebanon and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The real issue today is that the Bush administration, which has been repeatedly burned in recent years when it tried to engage these governments, prefers discretion and holding lower-level talks. These regimes insist on holding well-publicized summits that yield them P.R. windfalls without forcing them to substantively change their policies. The fact is that, since the Carter's presidency, U.S. administrations of both parties have tried unsuccessfully to persuade these governments to end their support for terrorism and their efforts to sabotage Washington's efforts to facilitate peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Following Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's historic November 1977 peace mission to Israel, for example, the Carter administration attempted to persuade Syrian President Hafez Assad (father of the current Syrian strongman Bashar Assad) to join the Middle East peace process. Assad responded by making Damascus the headquarters of a rejection front dominated by the pro-Soviet terrorist groups like George Habash's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Ahmed Jibril's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command.

In 1982 and 1983, veteran U.S. diplomats Philip Habib and Morris Draper conducted months of arduous shuttle diplomacy in an effort to end the violence in Lebanon -- a civil war that began in 1975, followed by Israel's 1982 military campaign to uproot Palestinian terrorist groups based there. Syria did everything it could to sabotage efforts to stabilize Lebanon: It likely facilitated the September 1982 assassination of Lebanese leader Pierre Gemayel and undoubtedly assisted the rise of the Iranian-backed Shi'ite terror organization Hezbollah, whose "credits" included the October 23, 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut which killed 241 U.S. servicemen. And for good measure, Syria waged an intimidation campaign that forced the Lebanese government to abrogate the U.S.-brokered May 1983 peace treaty it signed with Israel less than a year later.

In recent days, Mr. Baker, arguing the importance of talking to people we dislike, cites as an example his own shuttle diplomacy effort while serving as secretary of state in 1991, when he succeeded in cajoling Assad into participating in the Madrid conference on Middle East peace. He said that, even though his first 15 visits to Damascus did not succeed in persuading Assad to participate, the 16th try was a charm: The Syrian strongman showed up in Madrid after all. But what exactly did all of Mr. Baker's hard work achieve? Less than two years later, after Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat embarked on the Oslo "peace process" at the White House with President Clinton looking on, Syria embarked on a campaign to sabotage any possibility of an Israeli-Palestinian settlement by supporting terrorist groups such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. During the 1990s, Rabin and subsequent Israeli leaders tried to negotiate with Assad an agreement in which Israel would return the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in a defensive war, to Syria in exchange of a peace settlement. But Assad blocked any real progress by refusing to negotiate seriously over security arrangements with Israel. In May 2000, Israel unilaterally withdrew its forces from southern Lebanon, whereupon Syria responded by aiding the Hezbollah buildup on Israel's northern border that led to war on July 12, 2006, after Hezbollah crossed the border and kidnapped two Israeli soldiers.

As all of its recent predecessors did with Hafez Assad, who died in June 2000 , the Bush administration has also repeatedly tried and failed to persuade his son and successor strongman, President Bashar Assad, to be more cooperative. David Schenker, who served as the Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestinian affairs adviser in the office of the Secretary of Defense from 2002 to 2006, notes that Washington sent at least five high-level delegations to Syria from 2001 until the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri in February 2005 in an effort "to cajole Bashar Assad to change his unhelpful behavior." The delegations dealt with issues such as Syria's efforts to destabilize Iraq; its continued interference in Lebanon; and its support for Hezbollah and Palestinian terrorist groups. All of these good-faith efforts failed. Perhaps the best known was Secretary of State Colin Powell's May 2003 visit to Damascus -- one month after the fall of Saddam Hussein, and at the height of American power in the Bush era. Assad agreed to Powell's demand that he stop subverting Iraq, but once Powell left, the Syrian dictator continued business as usual. If this is the way he behaved toward an American secretary of state at that time, how can we seriously believe things will change for the better now, given all of the problems the U.S. military is facing in Iraq; the Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan; and the success of Hezbollah and its allies in bringing Lebanon to the verge of catastrophe.

If anything, good-faith U.S. efforts to reach out to the Islamic Republic of Iran dating back to the Carter Administration have been an even more abysmal failure. In the wake of the February 1979 Iranian Revolution that overthrew Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, a U.S. ally, the Carter Administration tried to reach out to establish a dialogue with the new Iranian government. So, on Nov. 1, 1979, National Security Adviser Brzezinski met in Algiers with Iranian Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan, a relatively powerless Iranian "moderate." In response, student radicals seized the American Embassy in Tehran, beginning the hostage crisis that continued until the day that Ronald Reagan was inaugurated president. The students received backing from the Ayatollah Khomeini, who had little use for Bazargan and was intent on humiliating the "Great Satan." President Reagan -- a political giant whose successes included ending the Cold War -- fared little better in dealing with the Iranians, as evidence by the failed effort to sell arms to Iran in exchange for the release of American hostages captured by Iran's Hezbollah proxies in Lebanon.

Another major U.S. effort to talk with the Iranians occurred in 1998, after the election of Mohammed Khatami, who talked elyptically of dialogue with the West. In response, the Clinton Administration began to back away from the 1996 Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, legislation imposing sanctions against foreign companies that invest in the Iranian oil and gas industries. Scholars Patrick Clawson and Michael Rubin note in their book Eternal Iran that the softening of the U.S. position averted a crisis over a French investment of $2 billion in Iran's South Pars oil field. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright also apologized for the U.S. role in the 1953 coup that brought the Shah to power. And the Clinton administration, according to FBI Director Louis Freeh, dragged its feet in investigating the June 1996 bombing of a U.S. housing facility in Saudi Arabia, in which 19 American servicemen were killed, apparently by terrorists supported by Iran. All of this came to naught, as the Iranians demanded reparations from the United States and the Ayatollah Khamenei denounced rapprochement with Washington as "treason."

One area where the two countries were able to cooperate was Afghanistan, where both Washington and Tehran opposed the Taliban regime before and after the September 11 terrorist attacks. But Washington dramatically scaled back cooperation after Israel's January 2002 apprehension of the Karine-A, a ship carrying 50 tons of Iranian-supplied weapons to Arafat's Palestinian Authority. President Bush's inclusion of Iran in the "axis of evil" in his 2002 State of the Union address came just weeks after the Karine-A discovery. In May 2003, Washington reversed its willingness to cooperate with Iran after learning that it was harboring al Qaeda terrorists, including some who were implicated in a bombing in Saudi Arabia that month in which eight Americans were killed. In March, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, responding to European calls for a dialogue with Iran over its nuclear weapons program, announced that Washington would end its opposition to Iranian membership in the World Trade Organization and an array of other steps in an effort to persuade Iran to halt its nuclear weapons activities. Iran responded with defiance -- and for good measure, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, elected last year, has made statements denying the Holocaust and calling for Israel's destruction a regular staple of his rhetoric.

Based on the historical record, the advocates of U.S. engagement with these regimes are delusional. The record, from Carter to Bush II, strongly suggests that neither regime has any interest in cooperating with us in Iraq, and are more likely than not to view the Carter-Brzezinski-Hagel approach as a demonstration of American weakness.

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About the Author

Joel Himelfarb is the assistant editor of the editorial page of The Washington Times.