Dialogue with Iran? Congress has gotcher back, Mr. President-elect.
That’s how it seemed Tuesday evening in the Hart Senate building, when three top congressional leaders – two Democrats and a Republican – told a friendly audience that they backed President-elect Obama’s policy of outreach.
The unity (with a caveat I’ll explain below) would seem to bury for now the call for further isolation that permeated the presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), as well as those of McCain’s Republican rivals.
First, the "friendly audience:" That’s the National Iranian American Council, the domestic group that is perhaps the most outspoken advocate for greater engagement with Iran and among the most strident opponents of a strike (Israeli or otherwise) as a means of containing Iran’s suspected nuclear threat.
(That would seem to make NIAC the mirror image of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee; but, this is DC, and in June, AIPAC and NIAC joined at AIPAC’s new HQ to convene an off the record two days of "transpartisan dialogue" – yes, "transpartisan" spooks me too – on "the relationship between the United States, Israel and Iran and its effects on U.S. foreign policy." Go figure this town.)
Back to the speakers at the NIAC event:
U.S. Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.), who chairs the foreign affairs subcommittee on the U.S. House of Representatives’ powerful Oversight Committee.
"The million dollar question then is: will a new approach of diplomacy and negotiation work? My first response is to ask: What has the outgoing administration’s approach gotten us? I would argue very little, and in many ways, it has been counterproductive. So what are the signs that an alternate approach – one focused first and foremost on diplomacy and negotiation – might work? I agree with those who say that while no approach is risk-free and there are no certainties in this complicated world of ours, Iran has demonstrated its desire in the not so disatnt past to play a useful regional role."
Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), significant because he is a centrist and played the leading role in pulling Iran isolationist Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), back into the Democratic caucus:
"I have concluded – as has President-elect Obama and Vice President-elect Biden – that it is time for the United States to engage, by pursuing a robust and aggressive diplomacy, including direct, comprehensive talks with the Iranians that address their nuclear program and support of terrorists, among other issues….
"It must be said that in order to defend our security and our close ally Israel, military strikes against Iranian nuclear sites should remain on the table. The threat Israel fears is real and must be taken seriously. However, a number of policymakers believe, and I concur, that military force would be ill-advised. First, any strike would be difficult to execute as there is little known about exactly where the Iranian facilities are located. Second, U.S. or Israeli military strikes would likely rally a mostly pro-American population around the highly unpopular government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Third, they would surely prompt widespread Iranian retaliation throughout the region, particularly in Lebanon, the Palestinian Territories, Syria and Iraq. Finally, any kind of unilateral military action – particularly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq – would lack the necessary international support."
Consider Carper’s speech Congress’ (and the Obama administration’s) first shot across the bow against any Israeli plans to strike: Not gonna get our backing.
Finally, the most warmly greeted guest was Sen. Arlen Specter, the veteran Jewish Republican from Pennsylvania: (Specter spoke off the cuff, and these are drawn from my notes, not prepared remarks.)
Dialogue "does not seem to be a very complicated proposition." Ahmadinejad is unpalatable, "but if you want to pick out the world’s worst terrorist, it would probably be Muammar Qaddhafi" of Libya, with whom the United States now enjoys full relations. "If you make enriching uranium a condition of the talks, what is there left to talk about?"
The caveat: Specter has long advocated dialogue with Iran (often joining the late Tom Lantos, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, in stressing the practical logic of such an approach).
Still, the appearance of a staunchly pro-Israel Jewish Republican at the event was symbolic in of itself; and as Democrats edge closer to a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, it suggests that even if they fail to reach the magic number of 60, when it comes to Iran, there likely won’t be much obstruction.