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
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
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
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
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)