Hamilton: Move Toward Iran Talks a 'Positive' Step

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says the U.S. will enter Iraqi-sponsored talks with Iran and Syria. Former Rep. Lee Hamilton, co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group, calls it "a positive and a constructive" first step toward opening communications with Iran.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Let's talk now with former Congressman Lee Hamilton, who was co-chair of the Iraq Study Group, which recommended the talking with Iran. Mr. Hamilton, welcome to the program.

Mr. LEE HAMILTON (Co-chair, Iraq Study Group): Nice to be with you, Steve. Thank you.

INSKEEP: How significant is Secretary Rice's announcement?

Mr. HAMILTON: I think it's a very important and a very positive first step to take a diplomatic offensive. What it indicates to me is that we're beginning to move beyond purely a military solution. We understand that at the end of the day you're going to have to solve these problems in that region diplomatically.

So it's a positive and a constructive step. Now there are a lot of things that have to happen here. The parties just sitting down and talking will not solve the problem. These diplomatic efforts will have to be sustained. There will have to be more than one conference. They'll have to be flexible so that you can go into multilateral and bilateral modes as the circumstances dictate. The lines of communication are going to have to be kept open. And I hope, at some point, the contacts will proceed to a very high level.

INSKEEP: Congressman, if you could try to reconcile two things for us, the administration now says it's willing to talk with Iran, at least in this context, and at the same time the administration has been talking very tough about Iran, accusing it of interfering in Iraq, accusing it of killing Americans, accusing it of nuclear transgressions as well.

Mr. HAMILTON: The conduct of American foreign policy is complex. You have to use all the tools at your disposal. I don't think you can solve these problems merely diplomatically. I don't think you can solve them merely militarily or with rhetorical threats. You really have to have a combination of things that have to be integrated and played skillfully. And that's the challenge, really, of getting policy right, the integration of all of the tools of policy. I know there's a bit of an inconsistency there that meets the eye, but diplomacy will not work without pressure and military pressure and the threat of military pressure.

INSKEEP: Are you suggesting that the rhetorical pressure may have made the talks more possible, more auspicious, put the U.S. in a better position to talk to Iran?

Mr. HAMILTON: I am suggesting that the pressure that is applied, rhetorical and military as well, certainly has a bearing on the success or failure, the prospects of success or failure in your diplomacy. These things have to be integrated to be worked effectively.

INSKEEP: Do you believe that Iran really can improve the situation inside Iraq?

Mr. HAMILTON: Well, we just don't know. But why shouldn't we take a chance? Why shouldn't we at least sit down and try? There are very few countries in all the world that have caused us more heartburn over a period of decades than Iran. We've got some very deep-seeded problems with them. That's why these contacts will have to be sustained over a period of time if they're going to be successful.

One of the purposes of meeting is to explore what the possibilities are. And it may be, if the most pessimistic scenario unfolds, you don't make much progress, but at least then the world will know that Iran is holding things up. It may also be that Iran is much more prepared to talk than we had previously thought.

INSKEEP: Would you hope, then, for a much broader engagement with Iran over time?

Mr. HAMILTON: I would hope for a broad engagement over Iran over time, discussing all of the issues between the two nations. I'm not Pollyannaish about that and I don't think these things will suddenly come about. I think this effort has to be sustained. Successful diplomacy requires very careful preparation, very extensive follow-through. You've got to have the right players at the table. Every one of the participants has a unique role to play. I'm personally pleased to see the Iraqis taking the initiative here. But a lot of things have to happen right to make diplomacy succeed.

INSKEEP: Mr. Hamilton, good to talk with you.

Mr. HAMILTON: Thank you, sir.

INSKEEP: Former Congressman Lee Hamilton, who, along with former Secretary of State James Baker, headed the Iraq Study Group which recommended talks with Iran and Syria.

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Iraq Meeting May Lead to U.S.-Iran Talks

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at the White House. i

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice didn't mention the startling development until she was five minutes into remarks prepared for the Senate Appropriations Committee. Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at the White House.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice didn't mention the startling development until she was five minutes into remarks prepared for the Senate Appropriations Committee. To her left is National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley.

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice could soon be sitting across a table from her counterparts in Iran and Syria.

Rice told a congressional hearing Tuesday that senior U.S. officials will join a roundtable that will include representatives from Iran and Syria to talk about how to stabilize Iraq.

It seems like an about face from the Bush administration, which has long resisted the idea of engaging the Iranians on the issue.

The surprise announcement actually came about five minutes into Rice's opening statement to the Senate Appropriations Committee. She had rattled off a list of reasons why she thought Congress ought to send another $100 billion to fund the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Then came a muted bombshell:

"I would like to take one moment to talk about our diplomatic offensive," she said.

The announcement she wanted to make was that in two weeks, the United States will join Iran at a round-table meeting in Iraq to talk about regional stability.

"I would note that the Iraqi government has invited all of its neighbors, including Syria and Iran, to attend both of these regional meetings," Rice said. "We hope that all governments will seize this opportunity to improve their relations with Iraq and to work for peace and stability in the region."

This is the same Iran that President Bush once dubbed as part of "an axis of evil" that included Iraq and North Korea.

And less than two weeks ago, the president had this to say about any possible dialogue with Iran:

"And we've made it very clear to the Iranians that if they would like to have a dialogue with the United States, there needs to be a verifiable suspension of their program."

He was referring to Iran's nuclear program.

Over the past few months, the Bush administration has ratcheted up the rhetoric over Iran. And all the tough talk has jolted many members of Congress. There's even talk on Capitol Hill of introducing legislation to prohibit any attack on Iran without congressional approval.

At Tuesday's hearing, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, raised the issue with General Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"There have been a number of reports that the U.S. is preparing to launch airstrikes against Iran," Byrd noted. "Is that true?"

Pace said those reports are "categorically" untrue.

Pace, Rice and Gates were actually on Capitol Hill to ask for more money — about $100 billion to fund the Iraq and Afghan campaigns through the end of 2007. The "supplemental" request is on top of the $70 billion Congress allocated to those wars late last year.

That might explain Sen. Patrick Leahy's somewhat annoyed tone as he addressed Gates.

"How long?" the Vermont Democrat asked. "how much money? How many open-ended supplementals? How long are we gonna have to do that?"

"Senator, the honest answer to your question is I do not know," Pace said.

These days, about 4 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product goes toward defense spending — close to half a trillion dollars a year.

Number crunchers at the Congressional Budget Office are predicting that number will rise by as much as a full percentage point in the coming year.

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