February 14, 2013

CIA nominee: Iran-bashing good for politicians, bad for US interests

While much attention has been paid to John Brennan’s policy on drones during his tenure as chief counterterrorism advisor to President Obama, surprisingly less has been given to his positions on Iran.
Slotted to be the new head of the CIA by President Obama, Brennan faced a confirmation hearing in the Senate last week that hardly dealt with Iran. But in the McCarthyite atmosphere in the Senate, anything approaching a substantive or nuanced view on Iran or Iran policy has become a political gambit. This was most apparent during Chuck Hagel’s recent confirmation hearing, in which the opposition turned the Iran debate  into a substance free and counterproductive contest of Iran-bashing.
John Brennan has actually spoken out against the use of exactly this type of hyperbolic and politically charged rhetoric when it comes to talking about Iran. In a 2008 paper, he even argues that engaging in such talk runs counter U.S. interests, saying:

“A critical step toward improved U.S.-Iranian relations would be for U.S. officials to cease public Iran-bashing, a tactic that may have served short-term domestic political interests but that has heretofore been wholly counterproductive to U.S. strategic interests. Rather than stimulating a positive change in Iran’s behavior, politically charged and wholesale condemnation of Iranian policies has energized and emboldened Iranian radicals at the expense of Iranian moderates.”

This paper, entitled “The Conundrum of Iran: Strengthening Moderates without Acquiescing to Belligerence,” sheds light on Brennan’s views toward Iran policy at a time before it was politically inconvenient for him to be so forthcoming. In it, he offers striking analysis on the decades old standoff between the U.S. and Iran and even offers several policy recommendations for reaching a peaceful solution.
The paper highlights a 2007 National Intelligence Estimate which assessed that Iran had no nuclear weapons program; a fact which Brennan then uses to censure the Bush administration on for not using as grounds to show an “interest in easing the pressure on Iran.” This is  a far cry from his sole statement in last week’s Senate hearing, in which he said Iran is “bent” on getting nuclear weapons–a contradiction of the overwhelming consensus that Iran has not made a decision to actually build a weapon.
Brennan goes on in the 2008 paper to recommend a more even-handed U.S. approach towards Iran. “Public recognition of legitimate Iranian national interests and positive Iranian engagement in places like Afghanistan—would have the benefit of bolstering the position of those Iranians who advocate improved ties with the United States,” he says. This will have the effect of eliciting behavior from Iran that will be in the interests of the U.S., leading to “productive discourse [between Tehran and Washington] and more constructive Iranian behavior.”
Brennan also recommends that the U.S. appoint a special envoy to Iran, something he argues is chiefly necessitated due to Iran’s importance to U.S. strategic interests and stability in the region.  “Using third parties such as the Swiss to convey messages between the two capitals in the absence of diplomatic relations is wholly insufficient,” he argues. He adds that “a direct U.S. dialogue with Tehran should not have a narrow focus, as the array of issues of most concern about Iran—Tehran’s engagement in terrorism and support to subnational “extremist” groups, as well as its proliferation activities and regional ambitions—are inextricably intertwined.”
In fact, a bill to establish a special envoy to Iran has been circulating in Congress for some time and the proposal even received a vote in the House last year, but failed by a vote of 77 to 344. The support of a new CIA chief could give the proposal new found momentum.
Brennan’s paper ends with a bold proclamation, “If the United States actually demonstrates that it will work to help advance rather than thwart Iranian interests, the course of Iranian politics as well as the future of U.S.-Iranian relations could be forever altered.”

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