Senators Urge Effort to Engage Iran

Worried that the U.S. is drifting toward war with Iran, members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee use confirmation hearings for State Department candidate John Negroponte to make a point: Why not open a dialogue between Washington and Tehran?

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The Bush administration's tough new approach on Iran was a central theme in yesterday's confirmation hearing for John Negroponte. You can watch those hearings with an eye toward learning what your senators are really concerned about, and no senator questioned Negroponte's credentials to become deputy secretary of state. He would be number two to Condoleezza Rice.

Lawmakers did express many concerns about Iraq and Iran, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: As the first U.S. ambassador to post-Saddam Hussein Iraq and the first director of national intelligence, John Negroponte faced many questions yesterday about where the U.S. is heading on Iran. He repeated several times to skeptical senators that the U.S. wants a peaceful solution to its problems with Iran.

Mr. JOHN NEGROPONTE (U.S. Deputy Secretary of State): I would characterize our policy as desirous of resolving any issues we have with Iran by peaceful means. But at the same time we don't believe that their behavior, such as supporting Shia extremists in Iraq, should go unchallenged. So it's a balance, if you will.

KELEMEN: But several members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said the Bush administration on balance has had a tendency to focus on military solutions, not diplomacy. Illinois Democrat Barack Obama said he understands the need to deal with Iranians who might be putting U.S. troops at risk in Iraq, but he warned Negroponte to think through the consequences of U.S. action.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): What I think many of us are concerned about is that we stumble into active hostilities with Iran without having aggressively pursued diplomatic approaches, without the American people understanding exactly what's taking place.

KELEMEN: Obama vowed to stay on top of this.

Sen. OBAMA: This committee is going to be paying attention and we do not want to see precipitous actions that have not been thought through, have not been discussed, have not been authorized.

KELEMEN: When newcomer to the committee Virginia Democrat Jim Webb picked up on this theme of congressional authorization, Webb told Negroponte that he's still waiting for a yes or no answer to a question he posed to Secretary Rice.

Senator JIM WEBB (Democrat, Virginia): I asked, is it the position of this administration that it possesses the authority to take unilateral action against Iran in the absence of a direct threat without congressional approval.

KELEMEN: Rice's soon-to-be deputy, John Negroponte, couldn't offer an answer but said the Bush administration's focus now is on resolving issues with Iran peacefully.

But the Bush administration isn't talking to Iran about the situation in Iraq nor is it talking to Syria at a high level. Negroponte endorsed that policy, albeit in a mild way. Nebraska Republican Chuck Hagel tore into the strategy both at the Negroponte hearing and later at a hearing with members of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group.

Senator CHUCK HAGEL (Republican, Nebraska): I find it all incomprehensible when you talk about Iraq and Iran and America's policy that we won't talk with them, we won't engage them; when in fact our allies, the sovereign government of Iraq, is engaging the Iranians.

KELEMEN: Hagel was preaching to the choir in that case, speaking to the co-chairs of the Iraq Study Group, which recommended a diplomatic push to bring all of Iraq's neighbors together, including Iran and Syria.

Republican co-chair of the Iraq Study Group, James Baker, defended Secretary Rice on some points, saying she did just go to the Middle East and is working to revive the Arab-Israeli peace process, another recommendation by the Iraq Study Group. But Baker still has major differences with his former protégé.

Mr. JAMES BAKER (Co-Chairman, Iraq Study Group): Where I think we're really missing the boat is Syria. I think we have tremendous opportunity here to perhaps move them away from a marriage of convenience with Iran.

KELEMEN: Lee Hamilton, the Democratic co-chair of the Iraq Study Group, was tougher, saying current U.S. policy of isolating Iran and Syria is just not working. Iran has become emboldened, he said, and Syria continues to support extremists in the region.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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