Although the White House is poised to back away from misguided attempts to "engage" the Iranian mullahs, don't expect the State Department to play along. Just as State has undermined the president multiple times already on matters relating to every spoke of the "axis of evil," State most likely will continue talking to the mullahs.
A recent Washington Post article gave an indication that Foggy Bottom officials may grudgingly embrace a new tough-on-Iran policy—if officially handed down by the White House—noting that State "appears inclined to accept such a policy." But history suggests otherwise.
The State Department's top policy official, Richard Haass, has plans to make one last attempt at "engaging" Iran before stepping down within the next month to take the lucrative post as head of the Council on Foreign Relations. As the biggest booster for continuing "talks" with the Iranian mullahs—which invariably give legitimacy to the ruthless regime—he has the most incentive to carry on secret negotiations. It would not be the first time he's stuck the president in the eye on policy.
One month after Iran was named an "axis of evil" nation, Haass went to the Middle East and told Israeli officials that they needed to "engage" the mullahs. And earlier this year, Haass tried to undermine the president's clear determination to not give in to North Korean demands for one-on-one talks. This January, he sent out a cable blasting the president's approach in what an administration official labeled a "broadside."
If Haass is effectively restricted from arranging official sit-downs with Iran, he may go through back-channels to achieve essentially the same result. Earlier this month, Haass protege Flynt Leverett had a "chat" with a former head of Iran's military at a political conference in Athens. After 10 years of government service, Leverett attended the conference just days after leaving the taxpayer payroll. In an e-mail he wrote to a listserve for academics, policy wonks and journalists, Leverett maintains, "I made sure the Iranians knew that I was no longer an official, and did not represent the administration."
But was it clear?
The Iranian with whom Leverett had his "informal" conversation is himself not a government official, though he still is very much a power broker, with proteges of his dotting the top echelons of the Iranian government. It is most likely that Iran saw Leverett in a similar light. Leverett was not just a recent retiree; he is extremely close—personally and professionally—to Haass.
And Leverett did not exactly treat the matter as one private citizen conversing with another—which, obviously, the whole affair would not have happened if that was the case—as Haass' good friend reported back the contents of the conversation "to appropriate U.S. officials."
Given his personal relationship with Haass and the policy planner's intimate role in all Iran-related affairs, it seems almost certain that Leverett was referring to at least Haass in the category of "appropriate U.S. officials."
It is not clear if Leverett's supposedly spontaneous meeting was pre-cleared by Haass or anyone else at State, but it is clear he exercised the same questionable judgment used by other Foggy Bottom officials. The man Leverett so happily met with was Mohsen Rezai, the former head Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Rezai is an active supporter of Hezbollah, which has killed more Americans than any other terrorist outfit besides al-Qaeda. Rezai has also long been suspected of ties to a deadly attack in Lebanon in 1983 that killed 238 U.S. troops.
Leverett's Iranian counterpart sadly is not a far cry from some of the people State tried to groom as successors to Saddam Hussein—including one former foreign minister openly backed by the House of Saud and one man suspected of direct involvement of the gassing of the Kurds—rather than have anyone from the pro-democracy Iraqi National Congress heading a transitional authority.
As State's actions in Iraq indicate, Haass is not a renegade. And the person slated to succeed him, the current ambassador to Turkey, is likely to follow in Haass' footsteps. If that happens, probably no group would be happier than tyrants hoping for the legitimacy that comes with State's "engagement."