Last week, Texas governor and GOP presidential hopeful Rick Perry attacked President Obama’s record on the Middle East. Perry, in a possibly ghost-written op-ed where he distorted a Texas historian to link Israel and Texas, wrote that it was a “mistake for President Obama to distance himself from Israel and seek engagement with the hostile regimes in Syria and Iran.”
But sending an ambassador to Syria, despite Republican opposition, has yielded some results. In early July, Ambassador Robert Ford joined embattled anti-government protesters in the restive city of Hama in a show of “solidarity.” Activists there said they “felt protected.” Today, the New York Times reported that the Obama administration is leaving Ford in Damascus “so he can maintain contact with opposition leaders and the leaders of the country’s myriad sects and religious groups” in order to avoid chaos in the event of the fall of dictator Bashar Al-Assad.
And today, the top U.S. military officer, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Michael Mullen, supported the notion of opening up channels of communication with Iran. Speaking at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace ahead of his retirement, Mullen said having no communications with adversaries made it more likely that mistakes could be made that would lead to an escalation of tensions and possibly a conflict:
MULLEN: We haven’t had a connection with Iran since 1979. Even in the darkest days of the Cold War, we had links to the Soviet Union. We are not talking to Iran, so we don’t understand each other. If something happens, it’s virtually assured that we won’t get it right — that there will be miscalculation which would be extremely dangerous in that part of the world. [...]
QUESTION: Are you specifically talking about military to military contact, or a broader set of engagement between the two countries?
MULLEN: I’m talking about any channel that’s open. We’ve not had a direct link of communication with Iran since 1979. And I think that has planted many seeds for miscalculation. When you miscalculate, you can escalate and misunderstand. This isn’t about agreeing or disagreeing. [...]
My own experience is, it sort of depends on the country what the most effective channels are. Some of them are diplomatic. Some of them are political. Some of them are mil-to-mil. Some of them are economic. But we have not had a clear channel to Iran since 1979.
[...] Any channel would be terrific and I don’t have a preferred one based on what the hopes would be.
Mullen’s comments come a day after the Wall Street Journal reported that the military was considering establishing a direct hot line to Iran in order to communicate should there be an incident between the countries, especially in the Persian Gulf between U.S. ships and Iranian Revolutionary Guard boats. Several encounters in the past resulted in what the Journal described as “near-altercations.” The Bush Administration, which rejected talking to Iran, refused to give military commanders the power to negotiate an “incidents at sea” agreement with the Iranians.