WASHINGTON, Sep 19 (IPS) – While his handlers worked assiduously Tuesday to ensure that U.S. President George W. Bush did not run into his Iranian nemesis, Mahmood Ahmedinejad, in the corridors of the U.N., a legendary fixer for the Bush family announced that the White House had cleared him to meet with a “high representative” of Tehran’s government.
Former Secretary of State James Baker, who co-chairs a bipartisan, Congressionally appointed task force called the “Iraq Study Group” (ISG), said that the timing of the meeting with that representative, whom he declined to name, had yet to be arranged but that permission for such a meeting to take place has been granted.
“I’m fairly confident that we will meet with a high representative of the (Iranian) government,” he said at a press conference at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP), one of several think tanks, including the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, the Centre for the Study of the Presidency, and Baker’s own Houston-based Institute for Public Policy, that are supporting the Study Group’s work.
Such a meeting would no doubt feed speculation here that Baker, a consummate “realist” who reportedly has been privately critical of the administration’s Middle East policies, could help tilt the balance of power within the administration in favour of fellow-realists, centred in the State Department. They generally support greater flexibility in dealing with perceived U.S. foes in the region, and against right-wing hawks led by Vice President Dick Cheney who have steadfastly opposed engagement with both Iran and Syria.
Indeed, Baker also announced Tuesday that his task force will meet later this week with the foreign minister of Syria, against which the administration has mounted a diplomatic boycott for almost two years. The task force has already met with Damascus’ ambassador here, as part of a series of meetings with Washington-based envoys from Iraq’s Arab neighbours.
The ISG was launched by Congress and quietly endorsed by the White House last April at the suggestion of a senior Republican lawmaker, Rep. Frank Wolf, who expressed growing concern about both the increasingly obvious deterioration of the situation in Iraq — and the threats it posed to the larger region — and the increasingly rancorous and partisan tone of the domestic debate about the war here.
Baker, who served as Washington’s chief diplomat under President George H. W. Bush, agreed to the appointment after gaining the personal approval of the younger Bush himself.
The ISG is co-chaired by former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton, who also serves as the head of the Wilson International Centre for Scholars here, and consists of eight other members divided equally among prominent Republicans and Democrats, including several former senior members of the Reagan, elder Bush, and Clinton administrations.
Aiding the task force, which spent four days in Iraq earlier this month, are some five dozen policy experts and Middle East specialists from think tanks, academic institutions, and the private sector. They range from neo-conservative hawks, such as Clifford May of the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies, to outspoken foes of the original decision to invade Iraq, such as the president of the Middle East Policy Council, retired Amb. Charles Freeman. They in turn are divided into four working groups: economy and reconstruction; military and security; political development; and strategic environment.
All participants have been ordered repeatedly by Baker not to talk to the press or anyone else about the ISG’s deliberations until its work was concluded, probably some time early next year, so as not to influence the mid-term Congressional elections in November. Hamilton said the group’s final report and recommendations will be made public immediately after they are submitted to Congress and the president.
In their remarks Tuesday, the ISG’s first public appearance since its formation, both Baker and Hamilton stressed that the group had not yet begun discussing those recommendations. Hamilton, however, also stressed the urgency and the Iraqi government’s responsibility for reversing negative trends.
“No one can expect miracles, but the people of Iraq have the right to expect immediate action,” he said, adding, “The next three months are critical.”
Unlike the elder Bush’s other top “realist” foreign policy aide, national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, with whom he remains close, Baker has been discreet about his criticism of the younger Bush’s Middle East policies.
“He has never overtly criticised Bush,” noted Steve Clemons, director of the American Strategy Project at the New America Foundation. Unlike Scowcroft, “he has essentially kept a foothold in the administration.”
Indeed, Baker, who led lead a major diplomatic effort for Bush in 2004 to reduce Iraq’s staggering foreign debt, has confined his public criticism to the way the Pentagon handled the Iraq invasion and its aftermath.
Nonetheless, Baker, whose law firm has long represented some of the U.S.’s biggest oil companies, is widely believed to agree with Scowcroft’s criticisms of Bush’s virtually unconditional alignment with Israel and his refusal to engage Iran and Syria, not only with respect to stabilising Iraq — the ISG’s focus — but also on a variety of other regional issues.
“He’s always been a proponent of dialogue,” said Trita Parsi, an Iran expert and author of “Treacherous Triangle: The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel and the United States”, who suggested that the Baker talks may offer an opportunity for “informal talks” with Iran and, in any event, “should help reduce the negative trend and the loss of trust” between Tehran and Washington. “I think the fact that the talks will take place is quite significant in and of itself,” he added.
Indeed, during last month’s conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, the director of the Baker Institute, Edward Djerejian, who also served as a former ambassador to Damascus and as Baker’s top Middle East adviser in the State Department during the 1991 Gulf War, called explicitly for the administration to engage in direct talks with both Syria and Iran on a range of issues.
“Despite the tragedy we see unfolding in the region on all sides, this crisis does represent an opportunity to get on with the real core issues in the region, and this will require contacting and dealing with all the players. All the players,” Djerejian, who has advised Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and mentored her public-diplomacy chief and long-time Bush adviser, Karen Hughes, told an interviewer on National Public Radio in early August.
Rice, who has tried with limited success to move U.S. policy in a more flexible direction, particularly with respect to Iran, has reportedly come to largely share that view, but has been thwarted by Cheney and other senior officials, including Elliot Abrams, the neo-conservative director of Middle East affairs in the National Security Council, in implementing it.
Whether Baker, in his work on the ISG or alongside, might help establish the kind of dialogue publicly advocated by Djerejian is speculative at this point. Many observers believe that, at the very least, a strong recommendation by him or the group as a whole that Washington directly engage Tehran would be difficult for the administration to resist, particularly if current trends are not reversed.
“It seems to me that Rice has gotten the latitude from Bush to pursue this sort of alternative course with Iran and the broader Middle East,” Clemons said, adding “But it doesn’t mean that the president has bought into the process.”
Ten months ago, the administration in fact agreed to a suggestion by its ambassador in Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad, to initiate talks with Tehran about the stabilising Iraq, but Washington subsequently backed away from the idea.