JOSEPH BIDEN'S BLINK ON IRAN
By Dr. Michael Rubin
As Chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden is well versed in policy debates and carefully choreographed trips. But his record on the Islamic Republic of Iran -- perhaps the chief national security threat facing the next President of the U.S.A. -- suggests a persistent and dangerous judgment deficit. Biden's unyielding pursuit of "engagement" with Iran for more than a decade has made it easier for Tehran to pursue its nuclear program, while his partisan obsession with thwarting the Bush administration has led Biden to oppose tough sanctions against hardliners in Iran's Islamist regime and in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
Eleven years ago, on August 4, 1997, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami proposed a dialogue of civilizations. The world applauded. Biden spearheaded efforts to seize the mantle of engagement. In September, 1998, for example, Biden told the Czech Foreign Minister that cutting radio broadcasts into Iran might better encourage dialogue. Not long after President Bush declared Iran part of an "axis of evil," Biden headlined a March 13, 2002, dinner at the American Iranian Council, an organization underwritten at the time by a dozen oil companies and dedicated to ending sanctions on Iran. At the gala (at which Biden also endorsed regime change in Iraq), he spoke of the dichotomy between hardliners and the reformers led by Khatami. In order to encourage reform, he invited "the elected representatives in Iran, to meet with . . . members of the United States Congress." Biden indicated that it would not be his first meeting with Iranian parliamentarians.
Fast forward a few years. Khatami left office in 2005 without implementing substantial reform. Between 2000 and 2005, in an effort to engage Iran, European Union trade with that country nearly tripled. Yet, far from assuming a moderate posture, "the elected representatives in Iran" allocated nearly 70 percent of the hard currency windfall into military and nuclear programs. The November, 2007, National Intelligence Estimate affirmed the fruits of such investment, when it found that Iran had pursued a nuclear weapons program until 2003. Although Biden's embrace of engagement coincided with Iran's nuclear warhead work, he acknowledged no error. He told reporters on December 4, 2007, that President Bush had "misrepresented" the intelligence in a drive to war and declared the same day, "You cannot trust this President."
Such poor judgment was not lost on Iranian leaders. Indeed, one of Khatami's top aides suggested that they came to count on it. At a June 14, 2008, panel with Iranian journalists and political advisers, former Khatami spokesman Abdollah Ramezanzadeh explained: "We had one overt policy, which was one of negotiation and confidence building, and a covert policy, which was continuation of activities." He advised President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to soften his defiance, noting:
Bush has been a polarizing figure, but most Senators realize that partisanship should never trump national security. In early 2007, evidence mounted that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps was planning terrorist activities in Iraq. An August, 2007, National Intelligence Estimate found that "Iran has been intensifying aspects of its lethal support for select groups of Iraqi Shia militants" and that "Explosively formed penetrator (EFP) attacks have risen dramatically." The next month, the Senate considered a bipartisan amendment to designate the Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization, an important step to aid nonviolent efforts to deny it funds and financing. Biden was one of only 22 Senators to vote against it. "I voted against the amendment to designate Iran's Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization because I don't trust this administration," he said. Distrust of the U.S. President is the nature of politics, but skepticism about foreign dictators and their Brown Shirts is the backbone of judgment.
No matter. Biden's political games have made him Tehran's favorite U.S. Senator. As General David Petraeus struggled to unite Iraqis across the ethnic and sectarian divide, Iran's Press TV seized on Biden's plan for partitioning Iraq and featured his statements with the headline "US plans to disintegrate Iraq." Biden's attack-dog statements about U.S. policy failures emboldened Iranian hardliners to defy diplomacy. In the December 7, 2007, official sermon, Ayatollah Mohammad Kashani, speaking on behalf of Iran's Supreme Leader, declared:
The crowd met his statement with refrains of "Death to America."
Obama picked Biden for experience, but he might also have considered judgment. When it comes to Iran, Biden could stare down dictators; too bad he blinks.
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Dr. Michael Rubin, a Ph.D. in History (Yale University) and a specialist in Middle Eastern politics, Islamic culture and Islamist ideology, is Editor of the Middle East Quarterly, a senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School, and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. Dr Rubin is author of Into the Shadows: Radical Vigilantes in Khatami's Iran (Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2001) and is co-author, with Dr. Patrick Clawson, of Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). Dr. Rubin served as political advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad (2003-2004); staff advisor on Iran and Iraq in the Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense (2002-2004); visiting lecturer in the Departments of History and International Relations at Hebrew University of Jerusalem (2001-2002); visiting lecturer at the Universities of Sulaymani, Salahuddin, and Duhok in Iraqi Kurdistan (2000-2001); Soref Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (1999-2000); and visiting lecturer in the Department of History at Yale University (1999-2000). He has been a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, the Leonard Davis Institute at Hebrew University, and the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs.
The foregoing article by Dr. Rubin was originally published in the Washington Post, August 26, 2008, and can be found on the Internet website maintained by the Middle East Forum, a foreign policy think tank which seeks to define and promote American interests in the Middle East, defining U.S. interests to include fighting radical Islam, working for Palestinian Arab acceptance of the State of Israel, improving the management of U.S. efforts to promote constitutional democracy in the Middle East, reducing America's energy dependence on the Middle East, more robustly asserting U.S. interests vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia, and countering the Iranian threat. (Article URL: http://www.meforum.org/article/1974)
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