WASHINGTON – The United States no longer seeks "regime change" in Iran, and Tehran should respond accordingly by embracing President Barack Obama's overtures, a top US senator said Wednesday.
"We are not in 'regime change' mode," Democrat John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee told a hearing exploring the prospects for Obama's new policy of engaging the Islamic republic.
"Our efforts must be reciprocated by the other side: Just as we abandon calls for regime change in Tehran and recognize a legitimate Iranian role in the region, Iran's leaders must moderate their behavior and that of their proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas," said Kerry.
Kerry said his panel would release a report this week on the state of Tehran's suspect nuclear program, which Washington and its European partners fear aims to develop an atomic arsenal.
Kerry indicated that the document, which was expected to be made public, would underline the need for diplomacy backed by the threat of tougher sanctions or possibly the use of force.
Former US president George W. Bush's point person on Iran, retired diplomat Nicholas Burns, said the Bush administration had mostly doused calls for regime change as of 2006 but urged Obama to publicly repudiate that policy.
"I think it would be helpful if the American administration was to say overtly and clearly, 'that's not our policy,'" said Burns, who served under Bush as the number three official in the US State Department.
Burns said he strongly supported Obama's push to engage Tehran, stressing that decades "of isolating Iran, of refusing to meet with its officials, of calling for regime change have not worked."
But he warned the White House to get China and Russia to sign off on harsher economic pressure before launching new talks, accusing Beijing and Moscow of a "cynical" strategy that undermined UN sanctions on the Islamic republic.
"I think both have approached this from a fairly cynical point of view," said Burns, who charged Russia "continued to sell arms" to Iran while China expanded its trade ties as Tehran's European partners tightened the screws.
"Perhaps the most important element of diplomacy at this moment is not with Iran at this stage, it's with Russia and China," he said. "I hope that they'll give President Obama more support."
As lawmakers grope for a way to increase both pressures and payoffs for Iran to freeze its nuclear work, Burns said the possible use of force had to stay "on the table" as a lever for diplomatic success.
"I don't see Iran negotiating seriously if there isn't a marriage bet diplomacy and the threat of force. It's a language they understand," he told the committee.
But "I do not believe it's time for the use of military force by the United States or by anyone else. I don't think it would work," said Burns.
"I'm not familiar with any scenario where military force could actually fully stop a program that is based on scientific research and whose most important elements are really in the minds of the scientists of Iran," he said.
And Burns warned of "unintended consequences," predicting Iran would strike back through Shiite militias in Iraq, agents in Afghanistan, and elements of Hamas and Hezbollah.
"We learned in Iraq that sometimes when you start a war you don't know where it's going to end, and that's certainly the case with Iran," he said.
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