TEHRAN - Would a negotiated agreement between Iran and the Barack Obama administration
be feasible if Obama sent the right signals? The answer one gets from Iranian
officials and think-tank analysts is, "Yes, but
The Iranian national security establishment has long salivated over the prospect
of an agreement with Washington. But there's a big difference between Iranian
and U.S. ideas of what such an accord would look like.
Washington is fixated on what it would take to get Iran to agree to stop enriching
uranium. On the other hand, Iranians interviewed here indicate that an agreement
would only be possible if it represented a fundamental change in the U.S.-Iran
relationship. Iranian officials and analysts see the problem of U.S.-Iranian
relations as a seamless web of issues on which agreement must be reached as
a whole. And in addition to the bilateral issues of normal diplomatic and economic
relations, they see a new U.S.-Iranian understanding on the Middle East as
The problem for Iran, they observe, is that it feels it must base its policies
across the entire region on the assumption of U.S. hostility. "As long
as there is a lack of understanding between the United States and Iran, any
move by the United States worries us," said Hamid Reza Dehghani, director
of the Center for the Persian Gulf and Middle East at the Iranian foreign ministry's
think-tank, the Institute for Political and International Studies.
On the other hand, Iranian officials appear to recognize that the United States
and Iran do have some objective interests in common in the region especially
opposition to al-Qaeda and related Islamic terrorists. Despite past U.S. policies
that threaten Iranian interests, therefore, they see potential opportunities
for U.S.-Iranian cooperation in the region.
"If there is a chance for finding commonalities with the United States,"
said Dehghani, "it will be found in the Middle East."
An adviser to the foreign ministry who asked not to be named, because he is
not authorized to speak to foreign journalists, told IPS that a "grand
bargain" an agreement on all the issues that both sides wish to
raise is possible, based on a joint recognition of the threat from al-Qaeda
and related terrorist groups.
He added that U.S.-Iran understandings on both Iraq and Afghanistan would
be "central" to any such agreement.
Iran has long been willing to deal directly with the United States on both
Afghanistan and Iraq, having participated in a series of secret meetings with
U.S. diplomats in Geneva from late 2001 to spring 2003 before the George W.
Bush administration cut them off.
Dehghani explained the Iranian eagerness to deal with the United States on
Iraq now as a function of relatively greater Iranian capabilities and leverage.
But he also admitted Iranian officials are concerned over whether the United
States will abide by the agreement it has reached with the Iraqi government
to withdraw all of its forces by 2011.
Despite President-elect's Obama's campaign pledges on troop withdrawal and
the U.S. commitment to Iraq to withdraw completely by the end of 2011, Dehghani
said, "I'm doubtful about it." He cites factors that are favorable
to U.S. withdrawal: the fact that the U.S.-Iraqi withdrawal agreement was imposed
on an unwilling U.S. government by Iraqi public opinion, and factions in the
Iraqi government "friendly to Iran" an obvious reference to
Iraqi Shia political parties which had long enjoyed Iranian patronage and are
now part of the Nouri al-Maliki regime in Baghdad.
What worries Iranian strategists are elements of the Iraqi regime they view
as responsive to U.S. interests. "Iraqi government security and military
forces were established directly by the United States," said Dehghani,
"and the heads of these systems are not friendly to Iran."
But Dehghani denied the Bush administration charge that it has been "favoring
special groups in Iraq, regardless of the central government."
If the U.S. and Iran reached a broader agreement to end their hostility, Dehghani
said, it would make a complete U.S. withdrawal from Iraq "more feasible,"
implying that the main U.S. interest in keeping troops in Iraq now is to contain
On Afghanistan, Iranian officials appear to view the brief period of U.S.-Iran
cooperation against the Taliban and al-Qaeda after 9/11, which was terminated
as a result of a neoconservative initiative in Washington, as the template
for what should occur in the future. Dehghani hinted that Iran is more concerned
about the danger of rising Sunni extremist power in Afghanistan than it is
with Obama's intention to increase U.S. troop strength there.
He said nothing about U.S. troops in Afghanistan except that they were suffering
more casualties than those in Iraq. Instead, Dehghani made it clear Iran opposes
peace negotiations with the Taliban, as proposed by Afghan President Hamid
U.S. support for a "dialogue" with the Taliban, he said, "would
be a great mistake."
Europeans and Arab states may be supporting an accommodation with the Taliban,
said Dehghani, but the "the real policymakers in the U.S. are not."
He suggested that such an accommodation "cannot be supported by the U.S.
Dehghani thus implied that Iran and the United States both oppose the same
enemy Sunni extremism in Afghanistan, providing an objective basis for
a broader regional accord.
Perhaps the most politically sensitive issue for both sides in any broad U.S.-Iran
negotiations, apart from Iran's nuclear program, would be Iran's relations
with Hezbollah and other anti-Israel organizations.
A secret May 2003 Iranian proposal offered to support the Saudi-sponsored
Arab League plan for a peace settlement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,
which would result in Iranian recognition of Israel if the plan were carried
to completion. But, as opponents of engagement with Iran have noted, the U.S.
State Department's Near East Bureau doubted that the proposal represented anything
more than the position of the Mohammad Khatami administration's reformist faction,
which they believed was too weak to carry out such an agreement.
It was conservative editor and political strategist Amir Mohebbian, a longtime
supporter of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who suggested in an interview
that a U.S.-Iran accord could "help the United States solve the Israel-Palestinian
Cutting through Iranian propaganda on Israel aimed largely at appealing to
Arab populations across the region, Mohebbian said Iranian policy toward Israel
has to be viewed as a two-level operation. "As a slogan," he told
IPS, "Iran says we can't accept the reality of Israel, but we have slogans
and we have action. There is a difference between the two."
According to the foreign ministry's top official on U.S. affairs, Ali Akbar
Rezaie, the main obstacle to a broad U.S.-Iran agreement is not conflicts over
objective interests, but U.S. concern with Iran's status as a "great power
in this region."
"The only way for the United States to reverse this vicious circle is
to agree to coexist with this greater status of Iran," said Rezaie. "Sooner
or later they will have to recognize this."
(Inter Press Service)