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Comment | Romney's Foreign Policy Team and Iran


17 Aug 2012 23:08Comments
romney-2012-blog-photo-foreign-policy-team-guiding-americas-strength-abroad.jpg"I don't know who all of his [Mitt Romney's] advisers are, but I've seen some of the names and some of them are quite far to the right. And sometimes they might be in a position to make judgments or recommendations to the candidate that should get a second thought."

Muhammad Sahimi, a professor at the University of Southern California, is a columnist for Tehran Bureau and contributes regularly to other Internet and print media.
[ comment ] This was what former Secretary of State Colin Powell said in an MSNBC interview in May, expressing his concerns about the foreign policy team of the presumptive Republican presidential candidate. Coming from someone with the stature of Powell, an experienced diplomat as well as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the First Persian Gulf War with Iraq, the image presented of Romney's foreign policy advisers is a deeply disturbing one. As the presidential race shifts into high gear, foreign policy, which many thought would not be a major issue in the campaign, is becoming more important by the day. With the negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 group -- the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany -- stalled, Iran is once again a punching bag for the candidates, who are striving to outdo each other in the blows that they promise to land on the Islamic Republic over the next four years.

Romney is a novice when it comes to foreign policy, as his numerous gaffes during his recent trip to Great Britain, Israel, and Poland evidence. Short of an outright military attack, however, I do not believe that he can take a harder line toward Iran than President Barack Obama has. After all, the Obama administration has imposed extremely harsh and comprehensive sanctions that are hurting millions of Iranians. Still, I believe it is important to take a look at Romney's foreign policy advisers and how they view Iran.

Last October, the Romney campaign officially announced its team of 24 "special advisers" on foreign policy and national security, two thirds of whom served under President George W. Bush, who led one of the most hawkish administrations in memory. In 1998, three of those advisers (Paula Dobriansky, Robert Kagan, and Vin Weber) signed the infamous letter sent by the neoconservative Project for the New American Century that urged President Bill Clinton to make toppling the regime of Saddam Hussein official U.S. policy, a wish eventually fulfilled with the invasion of Iraq in 2003. A total of 40 foreign policy advisers to Romney have now been identified -- including unofficial ones such as former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, and James Baker -- over 70 percent of whom served under Bush. These simple statistics alone provide important clues to what a Romney administration's foreign policy would look like.

In an article last month, the Wall Street Journal's Sara Murray described Romney's foreign policy team as a mix of "moderate and hawkish neoconservative[s]." His senior foreign policy adviser, Daniel (Dan) Senor, was the spokesman for L. Paul Bremer, the American viceroy following the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq. Other members of the team include John Bolton (another signatory of the 1998 Project for the New American Century letter), Cofer Black, Eliot A. Cohen, the aforementioned Paula Dobriansky, Walid Phares, Richard S. Williamson, Eric Edelman, Michael Hayden, and Dov Zakheim. (There is also an unconfirmed report that Amir Abbas Fakhravar, once dubbed Iran's "Ahmed Chalabi," has been working as a Middle East consultant to Romney's foreign policy team.) What are the backgrounds of these advisers and where do they stand on Iran?

Daniel Senor

Daniel Senor, usually referred to as Dan, is a cofounder, along with the influential neoconservatives William Kristol and Robert Kagan, of the Foreign Policy Initiative think tank. In addition to his job in Iraq, Senor was White House deputy press secretary in 2003. Illustrating the value he places on honesty, he told journalists in 2004 at the height of the violence in Iraq, "Off the record: Paris is burning. On the record: Security and stability are returning to Iraq."

Senor has advocated the same type of duplicity regarding Iran. He has said that the Obama administration should not talk openly about the consequences of a potential military attack on the Islamic Republic. During a campaign call, he declared,

The administration has gone out of its way to convey that the military option is not serious. I mean, just look at the things Secretary [of Defense Leon] Panetta has said over the last year, whether it was at the Halifax conference, whether it was the Saban conference at Brookings [Institution].... He went out of his way to talk about how disastrous military action against Iran would be for the United States, for the global economy, for the region.

During Romney's recent trip to Israel, Senor said, "If Israel has to take action on its own, in order to stop Iran from developing that capability, the governor [Romney] would respect that decision." In a subsequent "clarification" of his comment, he said that Romney hopes that diplomacy and sanctions will succeed in halting Iran's nuclear ambitions, but added, "Gov. Romney recognizes Israel's right to defend itself, and that it is right for America to stand with it."

John Bolton

Bolton, who served as ambassador to the United Nations and undersecretary of state for arms control under George W. Bush and assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs under Bush's father, hardly needs an introduction. Specifically concerning Iran, he is an inveterate proponent of a military strike. Even in the midst of analyzing the fall of former Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, Bolton suggested that "the U.S. needs to bomb Iran." This has been described as his "default setting," even though he has acknowledged that a military strike on Iran would not destroy its nuclear program. In a June op-ed published by the right-wing Washington Times, Bolton expressed his happiness over the lack of progress in the recent nuclear negotiations:

Fortunately, however, the recently concluded Baghdad talks between Iran and the U.N. Security Council's five permanent members and Germany (P5+1) produced no substantive agreement. [my emphasis]

Bolton has also supported an Israeli strike on Iran and has even proposed a nuclear attack. He has campaigned tirelessly for Romney, espousing a hawkish foreign policy on the candidate's behalf. "Of all the candidates, Mitt Romney possesses the strongest vision for America's leadership role in the world," Bolton declared in his January statement endorsing the former governor. He has also said, "Mitt Romney will restore our military, repair relations with our closest allies and ensure that no adversary -- including Iran -- ever questions American resolve." Bolton has been mentioned as a possible secretary of state in a Romney administration.

Cofer Black

Black has been described as Romney's "trusted envoy to the murky world of the U.S. intelligence community." He was director of the CIA's Counterterrorist Center from 1999 to 2002, and then served two years as the State Department coordinator for counterterrorism. From 2005 until 2008, he was vice chairman of Blackwater USA, the private mercenary army that was the State Department's biggest security contractor during the Iraqi occupation, in which capacity its employees committed numerous crimes (see Jeremy Scahill's outstanding book on the company). During his tenure with the CIA, Black led its counterterrorism operations at a time when the agency was using harsh interrogation techniques, including waterboarding. He also played a leading role in George W. Bush's rendition program, whereby suspected terrorists would be taken to secret sites in countries that the CIA knew employed torture for interrogation.

Regarding Iran's nuclear program and the U.S.-Israeli cyberattacks on it, Black said, "The Stuxnet attack is the Rubicon of our future.... Your world, which people thought was college pranks cubed and squared, has now morphed into physical destruction...from the victim's view, of a national resource. This is huge."

Eliot A. Cohen

Cohen is a professor at Johns Hopkins University and a member of the Council of Academic Advisers of the American Enterprise Institute, a neoconservative bastion. Cohen was undersecretary of state from 2007 to 2009, when Condoleezza Rice was at the helm of the State Department. After the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Cohen became known as a leading proponent of invading Iraq. In an op-ed published by the Wall Street Journal, Cohen wrote,

After Afghanistan, what? Iraq is the big prize.... One important element will be the use of the Iraqi National Congress [of Ahmed Chalabi] to help foster the collapse of the regime, and to provide a replacement for it.

It later turned out that Chalabi was acting as an Iranian agent.

Cohen also propagated the discredited claim that Iraq was involved in the September 2011 terrorist attacks on the United States:

We know that he [Saddam Hussein] supports terror. There's very solid evidence that the Iraqis were behind an attempt to assassinate President Bush's father. And we -- by the way, we do know that there is a connection with the 9/11 terrorists. We do know that Mohamed Atta, the ringleader of the 9/11 terrorists, met with Iraqi intelligence in Prague.

Regarding Iran, Cohen has argued for toppling the Islamic Republic. Again writing in the Wall Street Journal, he declared,

It is, therefore, in the American interest to break with past policy and actively seek the overthrow of the Islamic Republic. Not by invasion, which this administration would not contemplate and could not execute, but through every instrument of U.S. power, soft more than hard.

Paula Dobriansky

Dobriansky served as undersecretary of state for global affairs from 2001 to 2009 (the post was renamed democracy and global affairs in 2005). She is currently a senior fellow at the Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and a member of the leadership council of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. In the 1990s, she supported advocacy efforts aimed at pressuring the U.S. government to pursue a militaristic post-Cold War posture -- including taking on regimes in the Middle East even before the 9/11 attacks -- and she was an early proponent of attacking Iraq. Arguing that the United States should do more to bolster the opposition to Iran's government, Dobriansky, together with Christian Whiton, wrote in Foreign Policy in November 2009,

Conventional wisdom holds that discussing Iranian governance would only complicate ongoing nuclear-related negotiations. But history shows the opposite can be true.... Now is the time to begin laying a foundation by preparing for election monitoring and giving the Iranian opposition an open channel to the outside world.

Walid Phares

Phares, originally from Lebanon, moved to the United States in 1990. He is the director of the Future Terrorism Project at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, presents himself as a "Middle East expert," and refers to himself as "Professor Phares," although I could not identify the university that employs him. While still in Lebanon, Phares was involved with the Lebanese Forces, the right-wing Christian militia that played a leading role in the September 1982 massacre of up to 3,500 Palestinians in Beirut's Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. Although he has been "lionized" by right-wing, pro-U.S. Muslims as "a hero to Muslim liberals," Ali Gharib has reported on Phares's links with Islamophobic anti-Shia movements.

Phares has been busy exaggerating the "Iran threat," advocating a tough line. He claimed that Obama's Iran policy will fail and that "Iran's threat to block the Strait of Hormuz could spiral into a regional conflict." Concerning Iran's nuclear activities, he said,

The Iranian regime is convinced that they are going to go forward with their program. That program includes the nuclear weapon, but also the delivery system. They're working very hard on missiles, both intercontinental when they can, and regional, and certainly they can put Israel, most of the Arab countries, Europe, Moscow, India, and our fleet in the Gulf and in the eastern Mediterranean in their range. But they are also going to try to negotiate gain time. In the meantime, the buildup of their weapons system is on. It's not stoppable.

His assertions run counter to statements by senior Obama administration officials and the International Atomic Energy Agency that Iran is not making nuclear weapons and has not made the decision to do so. The claim about "intercontinental" missiles is an utter fabrication. He has also repeatedly exaggerated "Iran's global terrorist reach."

Richard S. Williamson

Williamson was Bolton's predecessor as assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs, holding the post under both Roland Reagan and Bush Senior. In the George W. Bush administration, he served as ambassador to the United Nations for special political affairs and ambassador to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. He has also been involved in the resolution of the conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan. In a recent debate at the Brookings Institution, Williamson criticized Obama's Iran policy, saying, "There is no credible threat of force. No one in Tehran or in the region feels that the Obama administration will use force." In a June interview with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, he declared,

When Mitt Romney is president, Iran will understand that there is a new sheriff in town and that his position is that the only thing worse than the U.S. using force would be for Iran to have nuclear weapons.

He blasted Obama's "feckless and ineffective leadership" on both Iran and Syria, adding,

Iran knows there is no credible military threat from Barack Obama. As Bismarck said, diplomacy without a credible use of force is like music without instruments. And when Israel has talked about the range of options they may have to consider to protect their own interest, the Obama administration has done its best to make it difficult if not impossible for Israel to do what it must.

Eric Edelman

Edelman was undersecretary of defense for policy in 2005-09; he also served as ambassador to Turkey and Finland. He was particularly close to Dick Cheney when he was vice president. In July 2007, he criticized then Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton for asking the Pentagon to provide the Senate with an outline of its plan to exit Iraq, saying in a letter to her,

Premature and public discussion of the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq reinforces enemy propaganda that the United States will abandon its allies in Iraq, much as we are perceived to have done in Vietnam, Lebanon and Somalia.

In an article, "The Dangers of a Nuclear Iran," published by Foreign Affairs in November 2011, Edelman, together with Andrew Krepinevich and Evan Montgomery, advocated U.S. military attacks on Iran's nuclear facilities, claiming,

Iran's acquisition of a nuclear bomb would upend the Middle East. It is unclear how a nuclear-armed Iran would weigh the costs, benefits, and risks of brinkmanship, meaning that it could be difficult to deter Tehran from attacking the United States' interests or partners in the region.

The authors did not explain why the Islamic Republic would want to attack U.S. "interests," whatever they may be, knowing well that such an attack would provoke a devastating response.

Michael Hayden

Hayden, a retired four-star Air Force general, appears to be among the "moderates" in Romney's foreign policy team. He was director of the National Security Agency in 1999-2005, and principal deputy director of national intelligence in 2005-06. He then served as CIA director from May 2006 to February 2009. Upon his departure from the CIA, he defended the harsh interrogation techniques and torture the agency used on terrorism suspects, and advised Obama against "going too far in dismantling the agency's controversial counter-terrorism programs," even though he admitted that the information gained via torture was "modest." He recently claimed that the nuclear threat posed by Iran is getting "scarier." He has supported the cyberspace war waged on Iran's nuclear program by the United States and Israel, calling it "a good idea." But he has also cautioned against military attacks on Iran, opining that they would heighten the odds that the Islamic Republic will eventually decide to make nuclear arms. He stated, as well, that during the George W. Bush administration, it was determined that "attacking Iran was a bad idea."

Dov Zakheim

Zakheim appears to be another relatively moderate figure. Deputy undersecretary of defense for planning and resources in 1985-87, he worked for the next 14 years as a consultant to the Office of the Secretary of Defense. From 2001 to 2004, he was undersecretary of defense. In an interview last year with the Jerusalem Post, Zakheim stated that attacking Iran would be counterproductive and rejected the notion that Iran would attack Israel: "There is less than a 1 percent chance that an Iranian missile will get through these [Israeli] defenses. Iran, however, is worried about Israel's 'alleged' nuclear program, and their fear is 100 percent, so why would they want to take a 1 percent chance if there is a 100 percent chance that they will be destroyed?" Zakheim also warned Israel about the danger of attacking Iran. "The U.S. will be attacked in Afghanistan and Iraq, and this could turn the administration against Israel like never before," he said. His son Roger Zakheim, who works with the House Armed Services Committee, is also advising the Romney campaign.


The Nation has dubbed Romney's foreign policy team the "neocon war cabinet." Given the overwhelming neoconservative dominance of that team, Iran and its people could well expect an overt military attack from a Romney administration, on top of the undeclared war that has long been waged against the country via economic sanctions, cyberwarfare, assassinations of nuclear scientists, and support for groups that carry out terrorist operations inside Iran.

All opinions expressed are the author's own.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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