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March 22, 2006

Iran, Iraq Crises Converge Despite US Hardliners

by Gareth Porter

The agreement last week between Washington and Iran to hold direct talks on Iraq has forged a new linkage between the Iraq and Iran crises.

Hardliners in the George W. Bush administration are resisting any linkage between the two crises, because they want to avoid pressure for a broader settlement with Iran.

But they have already lost the battle against talks with Iran on the stabilization of Iraq. Those negotiations are likely to increase the pressure for bilateral negotiations on Iran's nuclear program and Iranian security concerns.

The convergence of the two issues is being driven both by the need of the United States and Iraqi political factions for Iranian help in resolving the sectarian violence and political deadlock in Iraq, and by Iran's desire to reach a broader settlement with Washington.

The U.S. reactions to the Iranian acceptance of talks on Iraq reveal a sharp contrast in the attitudes of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other administration officials toward the talks.

Before flying to Australia, Rice said the talks with Iran on Iraq "could be useful." The following day, however, some administration officials began to denigrate the value of those talks. White House National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley said they were "simply a device by the Iranians to try to divert pressure that they are feeling in New York."

Hadley suggested that there was no need for the United States to talk with Iran at all, because, "We're talking to Iran all the time: We make statements, they make statements."

The same day a "senior U.S. official," speaking to reporters while demanding anonymity, called the Iranian offer of talks "a stunt" and said Washington would participate only to avoid "criticisms that it did not do all it can do to defuse bloody tensions in Iraq." And a White House official sought out reporters to say the Iranian offer was "almost puffery."

The attacks by those associated with the administration's hardline policy toward Iran revealed sharp differences over which is more important – isolating Iran diplomatically, or taking advantage of its influence within the Shi'a political leadership in Iraq to help settle the crisis there.

The Dick Cheney-Donald Rumsfeld group, whose views were expressed by Hadley and the anonymous officials minimizing the importance of talks with Iran, clearly care less about what happens in Iraq than they do about maintaining the policy of implicit, if not explicit regime change in Tehran.

Rice and Khalilzad, however, are apparently willing to risk a weakening or breach of the policy of isolating and threatening Iran, because they recognize the desperation of the sectarian-political situation in Iraq and believe Iran could help.

Since late last year, Bush has sided with Rice and Khalilzad against Cheney and Rumsfeld, when they prevailed on Bush to authorize talks with Iran on the Iraq crisis. In late December or early January, Khalilzad dispatched a message to Iranian authorities proposing cooperation on Iraq, according to the London-based Arab-language newspaper al-Hayat.

The Cheney-Rumsfeld group did not attack the decision then, because they were confident that Iran would reject an invitation for discussions limited solely to Iraq. Iran's foreign minister quickly confirmed that belief by declaring that Iran would not agree to those terms.

Khalilzad has apparently repeated his proposal to Iran to discus the stabilization of Iraq more recently. According to a March 12 article in the London Sunday Times by Lindsey Hilsum, the international editor of London's Channel 4 news, a senior Iranian intelligence official said that the U.S. invitation of talks on Iraq had been "renewed" in late February.

This time, the Iranians did not reject the U.S. proposal. Their willingness to help stabilize the situation in Iraq without any commitment to broader talks reflects the increased perception in Tehran of a danger of military confrontation with Washington.

Since the Iranian rejection of Khalilzad's earlier proposal for talks, the Bush administration has stepped up its pressure on Tehran over the nuclear issue and orchestrated a campaign to take the nuclear issue to the Security Council.

In agreeing to help the United States on Iraq, the Iranians are primarily interested in the possibility of using talks on Iraq as a bridge to broader diplomatic negotiations with Washington. The Iranian intelligence official told Hilsum that Tehran would accept the U.S. offer for talks but wanted them to be in a neutral country, hoping they would eventually lead to a dialogue on the nuclear issue as well.

In announcing Tehran's acceptance of U.S. terms for the talks, Ali Larijani, Iran's chief negotiator on its nuclear program, who is known to be close to the supreme leader of the regime, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, hinted at the desire to reach an accommodation with Washington on nuclear and other issues.

"If the Americans stop their troublemaking in the region and if they examine their previous conduct and behavior, a lot of things may happen," he said.

The hardliners in Washington are determined to avoid just such negotiations on Iran's nuclear program. No sooner had the Iranian agreement to discuss Iraq been made public on March 16 than Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns publicly ruled out any discussions with Iran on the nuclear issue.

He asserted that any such negotiations would be "futile in view of the country's track record on the issue." But he also revealed that rejecting negotiations on the nuclear enrichment is part of the administration's strategy of pressure on Iran, referring to its "calculation that it is better to isolate the Iranian regime."

Although the administration seeks to keep cooperation with Iran over the crisis in Iraq separate from its strategy of isolation of Iran, the evolution of the Iraq crisis may make such separation impossible. The discussions on Iraq will have to involve various political formulas which the United States and Iran could both support. Iran would be asked to help sell the militant Shi'ite parties on a settlement plan with unpalatable compromises for those same parties.

If the Iranians become more deeply involved in the internal negotiation in Iraq, and the usefulness of their role becomes widely recognized, it will certainly be more difficult for the United States to resist political-diplomatic pressures to talk with Tehran about the larger issues threatening the peace of the region – Iran's nuclear program and the U.S. efforts to isolate and destabilize the regime.

Ironically, Iran's assistance in brokering a Shi'ite-Sunni political compromise has been sought by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of SCIRI, the largest party in the dominant Shi'ite alliance.

Sunni political leaders, meanwhile, have rejected the idea of U.S.-Iranian talks on a settlement, despite the fact that the Iranian support is necessary to get the Shi'ites to agree on key Sunni demands.

(Inter Press Service)


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  • Gareth Porter is a historian. His latest book is Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam (University of California Press).

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