On Iran, the Time for Debate Is Now

United For Peace and Justice, the anti-war group that organized protests against U.S. intervention in Iraq including the massive turnout during last year’s Republican Convention, understood the basic purpose of a new bill working its way through Congress. The “template” for this new legislation is the Iraq Liberation Bill that passed in 1998, but the focus has now shifted to Iran. It would hold Iran “accountable for its threatening behavior” and “support a transition to democracy.”

In other words, regime change for Iran.

When I asked Bill Dobbs, the spokesman for the New York City-based organization, whom I should contact in Washington about the bill, no obvious group came to mind, but he promptly got back to me with a suggestion, the Center for Defense Information. I called that group and was referred to a member of Peace Action in New Hampshire who had just returned from Iran, but that proved to be a dead end. The American Friends Service Committee in Philadelphia wasn’t able to help either. It appears to me that the peace movement is missing an opportunity to inform the public about a significant foreign policy development.

With U.S. troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan—bogged down is a more apt term—it might seem crazy to engage a third nation, but this bill (HR 282) is quite real. It has an amazing 187 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives, up from 167 at the beginning of May. They are a diverse group of conservatives and liberals, including New York City U. S. Reps. Jerrold Nadler, Eliot Engel, Joseph Crowley, Anthony Weiner and Gary Ackerman. In the Senate (S 333), the prime sponsor is Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who gained notoriety in an April 2003 interview saying he supported sodomy laws, but insisted he wasn’t picking on homosexuals because the laws also prohibited “man on child and man on dog” sex. Another co-sponsor is the ever-popular Arizona Republican John McCain.

The legislation seems destined to sail through the House.

Nadler sees the legislation promoting a “two-track” policy of negotiations and tough policies. Engel is a member of the House International Affairs Committee where this bill originated, and offered a similar view in an e-mail.

“Iran is the world’s preeminent sponsor of terrorism and is moving rapidly ahead with its nuclear program,” he said. “We must work closely with our allies, which are working to convince Iran to halt its nuclear arms project. This important legislation adds to that effort by codifying and tightening certain economic sanctions against Iran imposed due to its dangerous nuclear weapons program.”

I learned about the bill from a men’s fashion magazine whose cover shot of Hayden Christensen caught my eye. An article detailing the careful lobbying by hawks on this foreign policy initiative was written by The New Republic’s foreign editor, Joshua Kurlantzick, for the May GQ and carries the ominous title “The Next War is Closer than You Think.” It seemed obvious to me that the peace movement ought to be speaking up.

The bill establishes policy toward Iran and for pro-democracy Iranian dissidents. It sets standards for defining who these groups are—including their stand on policy positions like opposition to terrorism and support for freedom of speech, equality for women and Iranian adherence to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. The legislation widens the sanctions on companies doing business with Iraq and seeks to end cooperation between Iran and Russia, China, Malaysia and Pakistan. The law would designate that a special assistant for Iran affairs would serve in the White House to coordinate policy toward that country.

The legislation explicitly requires that “officials and representatives of the United States should… draw international attention to violations by the Government of Iran of human rights, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, and freedom of the press.”

One controversial feature of the earlier Iraq Liberation Act was the indirect use of U.S. funds to plant stories in the media. The Iraqi National Congress, the exiled opposition to Saddam Hussein, hired a top-flight public relations firm, Burson-Marsteller, and the account was assigned to the firm’s London office. The Columbia Journalism Review, in a summer 2004 story, quoted Helen Kennedy, a New York Daily News reporter, as saying that “the really damaging stories all came from those guys, not the CIA.” Burson-Marsteller achieved placement of 108 stories in which the exiles told reporters that Iraq had ties to international terrorism and possessed weapons of mass destruction.

The ultimate source of these funds that paid for Burson-Marsteller’s work was the U.S. government.

The “Iran Freedom Support Act,” according to the article in GQ, will fund Iranian political exiles including Reza Pahlavi, whose father was the shah ousted by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979. Pahlavi has a surprising ally in Hussein Kohmeini, the late ayatollah’s grandson, who changed sides, and in a talk before the American Enterprise Institute said Iranians are tired of “deprivation and suppression.”

Just as they did in Iraq, the neo-con hawks believe the existing government has little popular support and Iranians will welcome a regime change.

But the support in Congress is widespread. Jerry Nadler is most definitely not a neo-con. He opposed the Iraq invasion. Not a man to mince words, in a telephone interview, he called the war a “stupid thing to do.” Iraq posed no threat because Saddam Hussein was “well controlled,” in Nadler’s view. Deterrence was working.

But Nadler is much more apprehensive about Iran. He doesn’t know how close the nation is to atomic weapons, but he would favor doing “almost anything to stop them.” But Iran’s religious fundamentalism makes that country unpredictable. He has heard of boasts from Iranian leaders that they could “wipe out” Israel even though it might mean 35 million Iranian deaths.

So Nadler has co-sponsored legislation supporting regime change in Iran. But co-sponsorship in a legislative body is close to a snap judgment. Lobbyists are usually the ones who raise questions about legislation, but no one has approached Nadler about this bill either in favor or in opposition.

Once again, a major foreign policy initiative is being made without its full ramifications debated in Congress or by the public.

One justification for an active peace movement is that it stimulates public debate and forces government officials to clearly specify their objectives. Iran may well be a rogue nation, but the government should be compelled to make its case to the public in great detail. Unlike Iraq, a war with Iran may find us facing a united opponent with a real and effective government. On the other hand, a two-track strategy and pressure on foreign allies of Iraq may be the best policy.

But there is not yet enough evidence on the table because there is no debate, and the peace movement is losing an organizing opportunity.