Hand of diplomacy not working, Obama may get tougher on Iran

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 16, 2010 

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's new description of Iran as a budding "military dictatorship" opens a new, more confrontational chapter in the Obama administration's dealings with Iran and indicates that a year's worth of attempts to engage Tehran have failed for now.

"We see that the government of Iran, the supreme leader, the president, the parliament, is being supplanted, and that Iran is moving toward a military dictatorship," Clinton said in a town hall-style event with students Monday in Doha, Qatar.

After Clinton used the phrase again Tuesday, the State Department detailed the growing influence of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iran's elite military force, over the country's politics and economy. The guard now effectively controls nine of the 21 government ministries and has a sizable stake in telecommunications, oil and transportation, the State Department said.

The guard's growing influence inside Iran — even before last June's disputed elections — isn't new. Clinton's description of it is, however.

U.S. officials said she's intentionally sending a signal both to U.S. allies in the Middle East such as Saudi Arabia, and to Iran, where she hopes to exacerbate tensions among the country's power centers.

The message to Iran's civilian-religious leadership is "look what's going on, guys. Open your eyes," said a State Department official, who wasn't authorized to speak for the record.

The White House is certain to continue offering to "extend a hand" of diplomacy to Iran after three decades of confrontation, officials said. U.S. officials defended the engagement policy, saying it has made it clear to the world that Iranian behavior, not the United States, is the problem. "We have stolen their enemy from them. And they know it. And it gives them fits," a senior U.S. official said recently.

If the Revolutionary Guards, who have a deep distrust of the West, are in the ascendancy as much as Clinton and others say they are, however, engagement is likely to remain in limbo.

Rhetoric aside, Obama's Iran policy is beginning to resemble that of President George W. Bush. Obama is seeking tougher sanctions on Iran over its suspected nuclear weapons program, and hopes to rally Sunni Muslim Arab leaders who fear Iran in part because it is Shiite-dominated and Persian, as Bush did.

Patrick Clawson, an Iran expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Republican critics who were skeptical of Obama's promise to get tough with Iran if engagement failed should be mollified.

"People should say, 'Golly, the president really did mean it. . . . It turns out he was serious about both sides" of the policy, Clawson said.

"We have gotten nada. We haven't (even) gotten the level of engagement we had in the Bush administration," he said.

Under Bush, U.S. and Iranian ambassadors held a series of meetings in Baghdad to discuss Iraq's security.

Under Obama, the countries' top nuclear negotiators held an unplanned face-to-face meeting during international talks in Geneva in October, a session some Iranian officials don't acknowledge publicly.

Obama's liberal critics say he didn't go far enough in pursuing a breakthrough, and hedged his diplomatic offers.

Obama and his aides feel spurned, however, after receiving no reply to letters he sent to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, and after Tehran rejected a nuclear deal that would have taken most of the country's low-enriched uranium out of the country to be fabricated for exclusively peaceful uses in Iran.

No one group rules exclusively in Iran. And much of the opposition to the regime's current course is coming from independent or moderate clerics — a trend Clinton hopes to play on with her comments, a second State Department official said, speaking under the same ground rules.

By all accounts, the Revolutionary Guard's role in Iranian society is growing.

Formed in 1979 to defend Iran's Islamic revolution, the guard, which operates independently of the national army, now comprises three generations and is anything but monolithic.

Its founders were revolutionaries, who tried to export Iran's revolution to Lebanon and elsewhere. A second generation fought in the brutal 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. Today's guard members are more interested in money and power, according to analysts and diplomats.

The guard — increasingly the target of U.S.-led sanctions efforts — owns 51 percent of the Telecommunications Company of Iran, and has a construction arm that employs 25,000 people and recently paid $212 million for a 61 percent stake in the state-owned oil firm Petropars, according to the State Department.

Former Revolutionary Guard members or affiliates control nine of 21 Cabinet ministries, and Khamanei has appointed others to additional leadership positions, officials said.

The guard, with help from the local Basij militia, has led the crackdown against dissent following the June elections. It also runs Tehran's international airport, and is constructing the city's expanded subway system.

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