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December 16, 2008

Is a US-Iran Deal on the Middle East Possible?


by Gareth Porter

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 essential.

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 Iranian influence.

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 Karzai.

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. public."

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 issue."

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)

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  • Leon Hadar is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan). He is the former United Nations bureau chief for the Jerusalem Post and is currently the Washington correspondent for the Business Times of Singapore. Visit his blog.

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