Yesterday, a big chunk of The American Foreign Policy Establishment came out in support of engagement with Iran:
Five former U.S. secretaries of state said on Monday the next American administration should talk to Iran, a foe President George W. Bush has generally shunned as part of an “axis of evil.” [...]
The five — Colin Powell, Madeleine Albright, Warren Christopher, James Baker and Henry Kissinger — all said they favored talking to Iran as part of a strategy to stop Tehran’s development of a nuclear weapons program.
Kissinger specifically came out in favor of negotiating with Iran “without conditions.”
The fact that McCain occasionally talks to Henry Kissinger is occasionally offered as evidence that McCain is hearing from a diverse group of foreign policy advisers. The fact that Kissinger advocates a course which McCain has derided as naive and irresponsible should be a huge clue as to whom McCain actually listens.
Hopefully, Kissinger’s statement will put to rest the idea that McCain’s foreign policy brain trust is divided between realists and neocons, which I’ve long argued is nonsense. McCain is a committed neoconservative, and has been for years. Back in 2006, McCain’s neoconservative foreign policy adviser Randy Scheunemann insisted that McCain’s foreign policy views were neoconservative. In an August 2006 interview, McCain declared “fundamentally, I agree with the neoconservatives.”
As a neoconservative, McCain’s policy toward Iran is pretty simple: The regime is evil, and it must be destroyed. Full stop. The fact that Iran might view this policy as provocative or threatening, and take steps to protect itself — perhaps, for instance, by working to develop a nuclear deterrent — is taken by McCain simply as more evidence that the regime is evil.
The Iranian problem is also needlessly complicated by McCain’s aggressive posture toward Russia. Many of America’s allies, including the Israelis, understand that “Russia’s cooperation is essential” for dealing with the Iranian nuclear program. The policy of confrontation that John McCain promises against Russia will make an Iranian bomb more likely.
But the bottom line is that productive engagement with Iran is impossible while regime change is the stated goal of U.S. policy. Understanding that Ayatollah Khamenei’s overmost priority is the preservation of the fruit of the Iranian revolution — he views the continued existence of the Islamic Republic as an Islamic Republic as a first order goal, to which all other goals can be subordinated — is essential for understanding the way that Khamenei views engagement with the United States. If Khamenei and those in his inner circle feel that talks are simply part of a larger U.S. strategy for undermining the Iranian regime, it makes sense that the regime would stall for time while moving toward a nuclear deterrent.
Of course, understanding this requires understanding A) who actually controls the Iranian regime, and B) what those people actually believe, neither of which McCain has shown any interest, preferring instead to appeal to the misconceptions of “average Americans” while he jokes about bombing Iran. It’s clear that Iran must be confronted and its ambitions contained, but McCain has offered no good ideas on how to do this, apart from mindless militarism. The fact is that, with these five foreign policy eminences coming out in favor of talking to Iran, McCain now finds himself on the margin of this extremely important debate.