Congressman reaching out to Iran

While Washington debates whether it should talk to Iran, one Maryland congressman has already struck up a conversation.

For the past year, Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest has been meeting with Iranian officials and business leaders to talk about ways to improve relations between the United States and the Islamic republic that President Bush put in his Axis of Evil.

With the recent release of a U.S. intelligence report concluding that Iran suspended its nuclear weapons program four years ago, he now sees an opportunity.

“You get this kind of momentum, we will begin a dialogue with Iran,” the Eastern Shore Republican said. “If it’s not in this administration – although I think it’s possible – you will see a change in policy so that the next administration will have a better opportunity to openly discuss issues with the Iranians.”

That’s been Gilchrest’s goal since a private meeting last autumn with Iran’s envoy to the United Nations. The three-hour session with Ambassador Mohammad Javad Zarif was the start of a continuing effort by Gilchrest, a former Marine who had come to regret his 2002 vote to authorize the use of military force in Iraq, to develop relations with the country that some believed the White House planned to attack next.

He has followed up with other Iranians, exchanged letters with the speaker of the Iranian parliament and organized a group of Republicans and Democrats focused on improving relations.

Called the Dialogue Caucus, the group is looking to spark broader communication between U.S. and Iranian lawmakers. To the 61-year-old Gilchrest, wounded as a platoon leader in Vietnam, it’s a matter of “sending old men to talk before we send young men to die.”

“What I’ve seen in Congress,” he said, “is when you have two people talking, exchanging information, the potential for solutions is infinite. When they don’t talk, there’s no potential at all.”

Still, he says, he has no illusions about the difficulty of finding common ground.

“These guys are not sprouting halos,” he said. “We’re not talking about a poor, misunderstood country. But, you know, this is politics. I’d rather have them talking than shooting at us.”

Gilchrest says Iran has legitimate interests in the security of neighboring Iraq, where it has strong ties to the Shiite majority. He says that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad does not speak for the whole country, any more than Bush speaks for all Americans.

The largely behind-the-scenes effort is not without political risk. Bush says the recent release of the National Intelligence Estimate will not change the administration policy of mostly shunning Iran, which the United States accuses of arming Shiite insurgents in Iraq.

The moderate Gilchrest, who has split with his party over Iraq, is facing a strong primary challenge from the right from state Sen. Andrew P. Harris in the conservative 1st Congressional District, which voted twice for Bush. State Sen. E.J. Pipkin and three other Republicans are also vying for the nomination.

“He joined [Democratic House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi in wanting to try to run the war, and now I guess it seems that he wants to make an end run around the State Department in handling these foreign affairs as well,” Harris said. “Freelancing on the part of Foreign Service wannabes … is probably not the best thing for this country.”

Efforts by lawmakers to reach out to nations with whom the United States has troubled relations have a long and not very productive history.

But former Democratic Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, whose Iraq Study Group urged the administration to open talks with Iran, says that outreach of the sort that Gilchrest is attempting is “exactly what is needed.”

Gilchrest says he has told Bush of the effort and has kept the administration apprised of his contacts. A State Department spokeswoman said members of Congress are free to speak with whomever they choose – but added that “we would hope that if they did engage in discussions with members of the Iranian government, they would reiterate our policy and explain to them the clearly outlined steps that they need to take in order to come to the negotiating table with the United States.”

The United States and Iran recently agreed to a fourth round of talks between their ambassadors in Baghdad to discuss security in Iraq. But U.S. officials say they will not hold higher-level meetings or broaden the discussion to other topics unless Iran stops processing the uranium that they say still could be used for nuclear weapons.

The focus on foreign affairs is something of a departure for Gilchrest. The former high school social studies teacher has been better known for his interest in the environment as a member of the House Natural Resources and Transportation committees.

Then came the Iraq war, on which he says he was “sold a bill of goods,” and what he sees as an increasingly and unnecessarily confrontational approach to the world by both the White House and Congress. He has visited Iraq three times since the 2003 invasion, and has also traveled to Syria, Israel, Jordan and other countries in the region.

“I just couldn’t sit on the side any longer and watch all this stuff unfold,” he said. “I hear my colleagues. I see resolution after resolution coming to the floor condemning this one and condemning that one. Isolating the Palestinians, not talking to the Iranians, calling people evil empires. They’re trying to put out fires by throwing on more dry logs.”