WASHINGTON, Jan. 2 (UPI) -- The U.S. proposal to send Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., on a humanitarian mission to Tehran initiates an important U-turn in an administration still fiercely divided on its policy towards Iran.
The U.S. proposal to Iran about sending Dole was delivered to Tehran Tuesday and announced Thursday. If Iranian leaders agree, the former American Red Cross chief and current Republican senator would be the highest-ranking U.S. official or political figure to go there since the fall of the shah and the establishment of the Islamic Republic 24 years ago.
The proposal is also the first serious move towards exploring any rapprochement since the ill-fated and even ludicrous Iran-Contra initiative of 1987. It follows surprisingly encouraging comments from Iranian leaders including moderate President Mohammad Khatami. Even former President Al-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of Iran's top hard-liners, signaled a readiness to open serious negotiations with the United States in comments in the earthquake-devastated city of Bam Thursday. Washington had "shown positive results in recent months," he said according to Iran's official Islamic Republic News Agency.
These comments followed a dramatic change in tone in the Iranian media in hard-line and reformist newspapers alike over the past week responding to generous offers of U.S. aid after the Bam quake that killed at least 30,000 people.
The offer of the Dole mission also marks a dramatic triumph for the long outgunned and often despised traditional Republican internationalists in the Bush administration. Only a few weeks ago, they appeared to be on the retreat yet again, with their leader, Secretary of State Colin Powell, laid low with prostate cancer and in any case a lame duck as the end of the first Bush administration approaches. He has made clear, as has his loyal Deputy Secretary Richard Armitage, that he will not return if the president is re-elected.
However, the pragmatic internationalists got a huge boost from the success of former Secretary of State James A. Baker III in his recent tour of European capitals, to negotiate debt relief arrangements for Iraq. And that mission followed the return of Gen. Brent Scowcroft, twice national security adviser to Republican presidents including the current one's father, as an informal but influential White House adviser to current President George W. Bush.
To underline the symbolism of moves back towards more traditional Republican policies, the president spent New Year's Day in Texas hunting with his father, former President Herbert Walker Bush.
But the current president, speaking in Crawford, Texas, Thursday, repeated his determination not to compromise on three key policy areas that he has demanded from Tehran. "The Iran government must listen to the voices of those who long for freedom, must turn over (the members of) al-Qaida that are in their custody and must abandon their nuclear weapons program," he said.
Still Bush has already taken a first cautious but important step possibly signifying his willingness to deal with Tehran. On Dec. 26, less than a day after the horrific quake destroyed 70 percent of Bam, he lifted some economic sanctions against Iran that have been in place ever since more than 50 Americans were taken hostage in the U.S. Embassy there in 1979. As part of relief efforts, restrictions were lifted for 90 days allowing U.S. companies and individuals to transfer funds for relief and reconstruction operations.
Within the administration, the forces opposed to any serious negotiations or deal with Tehran remain apparently overwhelming. Vice President Dick Cheney and his influential staff remain dead set against it, as do Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the neo-cons who run the Office of the Secretary of Defense for him.
Outside the administration, neo-conservative pundits close to both groups are launching a new policy blitz to try and convince the president to topple the Syrian government of President Bashar Assad and arguably the government in Tehran too. All these groups have regained their former high confidence following the capture of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein near Tikrit a few weeks ago.
However, the president's most influential adviser by far remains his political master-strategist Karl Rove and as long as the current slow but still steady procession of body bags continues to come home from Iraq, White House insiders say Rove remains averse to more bold pre-emptive strikes to topple foreign governments, especially with the president's re-election cycle about to start.
It remains to be seen if Dole will ever get to Tehran, let alone if any serious negotiations on other issues flow from her visit. But the very fact that the president was willing to authorize suggesting it to Tehran in the first place sends the very clear message that maybe this will look a bit more like "Daddy's" White House in the coming year than it did in the past one.