WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration has dismantled a special committee that was established last year to coordinate aggressive actions against Iran and Syria, State Department officials said this week.
The interagency group, known as the Iran Syria Policy and Operations Group, met weekly throughout much of 2006 to coordinate actions such as curtailing Iran's access to credit and banking institutions, organizing the sale of military equipment to Iran's neighbors, and supporting democratic forces that oppose the two regimes.
State Department and White House officials said the dissolution of the group was simply a bureaucratic reorganization, but many analysts saw it as evidence of a softening in the US strategy toward the two countries. It comes as the Bush administration has embarked on a significant new effort to hold high-level meetings with Iran and Syria.
The group had become the focus for administra tion critics who feared that it was plotting covert actions that could escalate into a military conflict with Iran or Syria. The air of secrecy surrounding the group when it was established in March 2006, coupled with the fact that it was modeled after a similar special committee on Iraq, contributed to those suspicions.
A senior State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press, said the group was shut down because of a widespread public perception that it was designed to enact regime change. State Department officials have said that the focus of the group, known as ISOG, was persuading the two regimes to change their behavior, not toppling them.
R. Nicholas Burns , the State Department's Under Secretary for Political Affairs, revealed in a written statement to a senator this week that the group was disbanded in March 2007 in "favor of a more standard process" of coordinating between the White House, the State Department, Defense Department, and intelligence agencies.
Burns' statement came in a written response to questions submitted by Senator Robert P. Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat.
Shortly before ISOG was shut down, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice launched a major initiative to engage Iran and Syria in a regional effort to stabilize Iraq, reversing long standing US policy against high-level contact with the countries.
For years, the Bush administration has shunned meetings with Syria and Iran because of their alleged support for militants in Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories, as well as concerns over Iran's nuclear ambitions. But earlier this month, Rice met with Syria's foreign minister in Egypt, the first such high-level meeting between the two countries since 2004.
On Monday, US ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker is scheduled to meet his Iranian counterpart in Baghdad. That talk will be among the highest-level meetings between the United States and Iran since diplomatic ties were cut off following the 1979 Iranian revolution, during which Americans were held hostage for 444 days.
Kenneth Katzman , a Middle East specialist at the Congressional Research Service, the research arm of Congress, said he did not think it was a coincidence that ISOG was disbanded at the same time the State Department began its diplomatic outreach.
"I think the rationale for that group was promoting regime change and [Secretary of State Condoleezza] Rice is going in a much different direction from that," said Katzman. "The regime change school within the administration has really gotten quite a bit weaker."
Trita Parsi , an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University who also heads the National Iranian American Council, a Washington-based nonprofit education organization, said he also sees the dismantlement of ISOG as evidence of a change in Washington's stance toward Iran and Syria. But he said that it is too early to tell how significantly US policy has shifted.
"At this stage, these are just initial steps towards diplomacy," Parsi said. "I think we have entered a stage in which the people who were favoring regime change are not strong enough to conduct policy but they are still strong enough to undermine policy. It is too early to count them out entirely."
Despite the group's dismantlement and the new diplomacy, aggressive actions against Iran and Syria are widely expected to continue. ABC news reported this week that President Bush has given the CIA permission to try to destabilize Iran's government with a "coordinated campaign of propaganda, disinformation, and manipulation of Iran's currency and international financial transactions," according to the network's website.
According to ABC, the covert action was championed by Deputy National Security Adviser Elliot Abrams , who co chaired ISOG.
Rice and her most senior deputies appear to be charting a middle course between those in the administration who argue for tougher measures to threaten Iran and Syria and those who argue for negotiations.
Burns, who oversees the State Department's Iran policies, wrote in the May/June issue of the Boston Review that both threats and rewards are needed.
He heralded tough actions, including what he called a "whisper campaign" that has caused a string of banks and countries to cut off financial dealings with Iran.
Burns also championed recent US military maneuvers in the Persian Gulf as putting increased pressure on Iran. Another major war-games exercise by the US Navy began Thursday .
Burns said it was important to show Iranians that the Persian Gulf, crucial for shipping oil to the world, was "not an Iranian lake."
But in the same article, Burns also urged Americans to prepare for the eventual resumption of diplomatic relations with Iran, which he described as inevitable.
In a statement rarely made by US diplomats, Burns wrote that "there is going to come a point -- we hope in our lifetimes -- when we are talking to Iran again."