Two of Washington’s most prominent foreign policy greybeards praised Saturday’s direct participation in multinational talks with Iran by a senior US diplomat but called on the administration of President George W Bush to drop his demands that Tehran freeze its uranium enrichment programme as a precondition for broader negotiations.

Ret. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, who served as national security adviser under Republican presidents Gerald Ford and George HW Bush, and Zbigniew Brzezinski, who held the same post under Democratic President Jimmy Carter, urged Bush to go further by offering immediate rewards to Tehran in exchange for such a freeze.And both men warned that repeated US threats to use military force against Iran were counter-productive and strengthened hard-line forces in the regime led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. They said an actual military attack — whether by the US or by Israel — would likely be disastrous for US interests in the region.

“A war with Iran will produce calamities for sure,” said Brzezinski, who pointed to its likely impact on the price of oil and the likelihood that it would create yet another front to add to the two wars — Iraq and Afghanstan — in which US military forces are already engaged.” (Brzezinski’s assessment) may be a little more dire but not much,” Scowcroft said after the two men spoke at a briefing sponsored by the Centre for Security and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. “It would turn the region into a cauldron of conflict, bitterness, and hatred. It would turn Islam against us.”

Both men have been strongly critical of US policy in the Middle East, particularly the decision to invade Iraq — although Brzezinski has been considerably more vocal than Scowcroft, who remains a close friend of Bush’s father. Both leading lights of the so-called “realist” foreign-policy establishment, they are currently collaborating on a book .

Their joint appearance at CSIS, which was announced late last week after the administration had confirmed that undersecretary of state for policy, Amb. William Burns, would attend Saturday’s meeting between the so-called P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany) and Iran, seemed timed to demonstrate strong bipartisan support for continued US engagement.

Burns’ direct participation appeared to mark a potentially significant easing of previous administration demands that Tehran suspend its uranium enrichment programme as a condition for direct talks. Coupled with reports that Washington plans to open a Interests Section in Tehran, as well as a series of strong statements by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, warning against the consequences of a US or Israeli attack on Iran, Burns’ presence was widely interpreted here as a sign that the administration has made a strategic decision to engage Iran diplomatically, much as it did, beginning in late 2006, with yet another charter member of Bush’s “Axis of Evil”, North Korea. — IPS