Republican Hypocrisy on “Negotiating with Terrorists” | How Bush Bungled Iranian Diplomacy

Return of the Contra Band—One day after he was attacked by George W. Bush in a speech before the Knesset in Israel, Barack Obama made the case that there is no daylight between the most unpopular president in modern history and the Republican who is campaigning to succeed him. In less than ten minutes, Obama mentioned John McCain and George Bush’s names in the same sentence ten times.

Bush had used his speech before the Israeli parliament as an opportunity to imply that Obama was willing to “negotiate with terrorists” and might be inclined toward the same politics of “appeasement” that made it easier for the Nazis to conquer so much of Europe before the Allies responded.

Obama countered with a critique of Bush’s foreign policy failures and a reminder that McCain has supported them. He also pointed to a news clip that showed McCain making the case for negotiating with Hamas—the extremist group that won 76 of 132 seats in the Palestinian primary in 2006, governs the Gaza Strip, and is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S.

There’s more Obama could have said to illustrate the Bush administration’s hypocrisy. Bush’s senior foreign policy adviser Elliott Abrams brings to the job his own experience of negotiating with terrorists in the Middle East. In 1991 Iran-contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh had prepared a multi-count felony indictment against Abrams for his role in the cover-up of the Iran-contra scandal. Abrams’s attorney cut a deal that involved his client pleading guilty to two counts of lying to Congress. Abrams is now George W. Bush’s assistant for National Security. But the Iran-contra scandal involved more than perjury. Missiles were sold to the Iranians in exchange for the release of American hostages held by terrorists in Lebanon. Proceeds of the arms sale were used to (illegally) fund the Nicaraguan contras, who were themselves guilty of acts of terrorism in Central America. Abrams was deeply involved.

Beyond putting an Iran-contra alum in charge of its Middle East policy, the administration reached out to another discredited Iran-contra player. Iranian arms dealer Manucher Ghorbanifar’s sell-by date had long expired, according to the CIA. Yet in December 2001, Under Secretary of Defense Douglas Feith sent two of his staffers to Rome to meet with Ghorbanifar and other Iranians to explore how to deal with Iran. The other Iranians were members of the Mujahadeen e Khalq, a guerrilla group Saddam Hussein had used to conduct terrorist attacks on Iran. The U.S., Canada, and the European Union have all designated the MEK a terrorist organization. Feith hoped to use them for incursions into Iran.

Diplomatic Impunity—While John McCain supports the Bush-Cheney hard line on diplomacy and scoffs at negotiating with Iran, the Iranians have sent a letter to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon offering to discuss political, economic, and security issues, the Arab-Israeli peace process, and Iran’s controversial nuclear program. The story was first reported in the Washington Post by Robin Wright, who wrote that the Bush Administration is studying the proposal.

Tehran’s initiative recalls an Iranian diplomatic dispatch that arrived in Washington several days after Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech of May 1, 2003. The U.S. Army had just easily swept into Baghdad. Convinced they were the next target, the Iranian government approached the United States through Swiss Ambassador Tim Guildimann. In a letter that Guildimann forwarded, Iran offered to discuss its nuclear program and Israel policy. The Iranians even offered to hand over Al Qaeda prisoners they held in exchange for Mujahadeen e Khalq prisoners held by the U.S. and wanted in Iran for acts of terrorism.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was not yet Iran’s president, and the more moderate leadership in charge wanted to deal. Secretary of State Colin Powell was open to talks. But the diplomatic effort was shut down, and the Swiss were reprimanded by the U.S. According to Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, who served with Powell at the Pentagon and the State Department, the initiative was killed by “the vice president of the United States.” In early 2005, Wilkerson described Cheney’s role in shutting down U.S.-Iranian diplomacy when Jake Bernstein and I were working on Vice: Dick Cheney and the Hijacking of the American Presidency. The next American president will be in a far weaker negotiating position vis-à-vis Iran, which has been considerably strengthened by the failed U.S. war in Iraq.