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November 29, 2005

Realists Tighten Grip as Talks Open with Iran

by Jim Lobe

In a new indication that the balance of power within the administration of President George W. Bush has tilted strongly in favor of the realists, Washington's influential ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, has disclosed that Bush has authorized him to open direct talks with Iran about stabilizing Iraq.

The announcement, which came in an interview with Newsweek magazine, marks a major change in policy. The two countries have not held direct talks since mid-May 2003, shortly after the U.S. ouster of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, when the influence of neoconservatives was at its zenith.

At that time, the administration charged that al-Qaeda attacks carried out in Saudi Arabia had been coordinated from Iranian territory. It promptly broke off an ongoing diplomatic dialogue with Iran in Geneva that was led by Khalilzad himself and dealt primarily with Afghanistan and Iraq.

"I've been authorized by the president to engage the Iranians as I engaged them in Afghanistan directly," Khalilzad told Newsweek. "There will be meetings, and that's also a departure and an adjustment [to U.S. policy]," he added.

The decision to reopen direct talks with Iran, which has not yet reacted to Khalilzad's announcement, provoked a heated intra-administration debate earlier this fall about engaging Iran more deeply, particularly in light of U.S. concerns – and threats – concerning Tehran's nuclear program.

Some hardliners, including neoconservatives associated with the Committee on the Present Danger, have urged the administration to open an interest section in Tehran to gain more direct access to and intelligence about opposition groups. They argue that with sufficient U.S. support, these groups could subvert the regime in much the same way that U.S. support for Solidarity in Poland allegedly helped create the conditions for the end of Communist rule there.

But others have warned against any steps that could be seen as granting the regime international legitimacy would be a mistake, particularly in light of the hardline rhetoric of the country's controversial new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

"On the one hand, I think it's a good idea to maintain back-channel contacts with adversaries," says Raymond Tanter, a former National Security Council staffer whose Iran Policy Committee has called for Washington to deploy the Iraq-based Mujahedin-e-Khalq, which is listed as a "terrorist" group by the State Department, against Tehran.

"On the other hand, when you go public after Ahmadinejad says he wants to wipe Israel off the map, it seems to reward Iranian belligerence. I don't know why it's being done," he says.

But to a critic of the hardliners, University of Michigan Middle East historian Juan Cole, the message was clear. "It's a sign of desperation and a recognition that [the administration] needs Iranian goodwill to get out of Iraq," he told IPS. "To the extent you can have a soft landing in Iraq, the Iranians have to be involved."

Indeed, Khalilzad depicted the decision as part of a more general strategy, long urged by realists such as Bush Sr.'s national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, and some Democrats, including the party's ranking foreign policy spokesman, Sen. Joseph Biden, to enlist the cooperation of Baghdad's neighbors in stabilizing Iraq sufficiently to permit a substantial drawdown of U.S. troops.

That goal has become far more urgent in the past month as public support for the U.S. presence in Iraq has plummeted, as has confidence in Bush's performance there and in the general "war on terror."

As Bush's poll numbers have dropped to levels not seen since the Richard Nixon administration in the early 1970s, Democrats have become more aggressive in urging a major policy shift toward realism, while Republicans have grown restive. The White House was badly shaken earlier this month when a majority of Senate Republicans voted with Democrats to require the administration to submit regular reports on prospects for withdrawing substantial numbers of troops in 2006 and progress in training Iraqi troops to take their place.

Even if the administration has been slow – at least rhetorically – to react to the erosion of public support, the Pentagon, and particularly senior military officers who have been talking up the necessity of a substantial withdrawal in 2006 since last summer, has seen the writing on the wall for some time.

According to a number of published reports, the Pentagon has prepared plans to begin withdrawing large numbers of the nearly 160,000 U.S. troops currently deployed in Iraq to about 140,000 soon after next month's elections, to about 115,000 by next July, and around 100,000 or less by next November's mid-term congressional elections.

But those hopes are based not only on the military's ability to train and equip tens of thousands of members of Iraq's armed forces and police, but also on a political strategy to both reduce the strength and virulence of the largely Sunni insurgency. At the same time, it is key to ensure that Shi'ite groups, especially the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), that are most closely tied to Tehran, are prepared to go along with any measures that may be needed to pacify the Sunnis.

It is in this light that the intensified diplomacy within the region of the past several weeks should be seen – particularly last week's Arab League meeting in Cairo where both Sunni and Shi'ite Iraqi parties, as well as the predominantly Sunni Arab governments that make up the League, joined together to call for reconciliation and a withdrawal of non-Arab troops. The fact that Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who has long been close to Iran, flew immediately to Tehran after the meeting did not go unnoticed.

Nor was it missed here that, two weeks after Secretary of State Rice publicly raised the possibility of direct talks with Iran, Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Chalabi, a longtime friend of Khalilzad who had fallen out of favor in Washington 18 months ago amid charges that he was working with Iranian intelligence, held high-level talks in Tehran just before arriving here in early November for the first time in two years.

While Chalabi was received rapturously by neoconservatives at the American Enterprise Institute, who did so much to champion his efforts to bring U.S. troops to Iraq, it now appears that his official reception here by senior administration officials, including Rice, national security adviser Stephen Hadley, and Vice President Dick Cheney, was linked to his perceived usefulness in extricating those troops from a political quagmire – and, more specifically, gaining Tehran's cooperation in doing so.

"Perhaps that's why he was given such a good reception," noted Cole.

Washington's growing reliance on and support for regional diplomacy marks a serious setback to neoconservatives who, long before the Iraq war, had championed the unilateral imposition of a Pax Americana in the Middle East that would put an end to what in their view constituted the chief threats to Israel's security – Arab nationalism and Iranian theocracy.

Now, two and a half years after invading Iraq to put that peace into place, the administration finds itself seeking the support of both forces, just as the realists had warned.

(Inter Press Service)


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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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