Foreign policy circles in Washington, including
some figures considered close to the George W. Bush administration, have begun
talking privately and in off-the-record meetings about the need to give both
Iran and Iraq's Arab neighbors key roles in peace negotiations, according to
Middle East experts.
This new support for Iranian-Arab participation in negotiations on Iraq parallels
the position reportedly taken privately by U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad.
Steven A. Cook, a Middle East specialist and fellow at the Council on Foreign
Relations, told IPS that some foreign policy specialists "close to the
administration" have been saying in private conversations that the United
States will need to bring Iran and the Arab states into Iraqi peace negotiations.
Another Middle East expert at a Washington think tank, who asked not to be
identified, said that arguments for involving the Iranians and Arabs in an Iraqi
peace process have been heard with much greater frequency and urgency in recent
weeks in closed, off-the-record meetings.
The expert said advocates of that option are arguing that, given the influence
of these neighboring states on the Shi'ite and Sunni political-military forces
in Iraq, "You have to have something like a 'contact group' involving regional
states to maximize leverage on the Iraqi parties."
The 2004 Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry called in a New York
Times op-ed piece on April 5 for a "Dayton Accords-like summit meeting"
(a reference to the 1995 peace conference ending the Bosnian War) with U.S.
allies and the Arab League to reach a "political agreement" on Iraq.
Kerry did not mention Iran.
Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter (1977-1981),
is the most prominent foreign policy figure to call publicly for a regional
peace process. On the Lehrer News Hour March 20, Brzezinski suggested
getting the Iraqis to convene a "conference of
who are interested in continued stability in Iraq and in helping to prevent
a civil war from exploding."
In a speech at a Democratic Party think tank, the Center for American Progress,
on March 16, Brzezinski said the stabilization of Iraq is in Iran's interest.
Brzezinski confirmed in an e-mail that there have also been private discussions
about his proposal, but declined to be more specific.
Growing support in foreign policy circles for active Iranian and Arab roles
in peace negotiations has been prompted by the dramatic escalation of sectarian
violence in Iraq last month. That was a signal to many that the U.S. policy
of pressing militant Shi'ite leaders to be compromising toward the Sunnis was
failing to slow Iraq's descent into civil war between Sunni and Shi'ite paramilitary
In the wake of worsening sectarian violence, Ambassador Khalilzad has also
become more anxious about the U.S. failure to include Iranian and Arab participation
in Iraqi talks on a settlement. In a March 20 article in Time magazine,
Aparisim Ghosh wrote that those who know Khalilzad "say he is aware he
may be powerless to stop Iraq's unraveling."
Ghosh quoted a recent visitor to Khalilzad as saying the ambassador had complained
that he "needs more help from Washington to apply international pressure
on Iraq's warring parties."
The "international pressure" which Khalilzad mentioned could only
refer to pressure by Iran on Iraq's militant Shi'ite leaders and by neighboring
Arab states on the Sunni insurgents.
Khalilzad's apparent belief that the Iranians might be willing to help pressure
the Shi'ite parties on a settlement is supported by the observations of former
NSC official Kenneth Pollock on Iran's policy in Iraq after the U.S. invasion
in 2003. Pollack testified before the House Armed Service Committee last year
that Iran told the militant Shi'ite parties that had been trained in Iran and
strongly opposed the U.S. occupation to cooperate with U.S. authorities in establishing
an interim government.
Pollock told the committee that Iran was motivated by the desire to avoid "civil
war and chaos," which he called "their greatest fear and first priority."
Opponents of U.S.-Iranian talks, including National Security Adviser Stephen
J. Hadley and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, have tried to block the
active involvement of the Iranians in negotiations on a settlement in Iraq.
That issue may still be unresolved as Washington and Tehran continue to negotiate
proposals on the details of the talks.
Khalilzad's desire for the participation of Iraq's Arab neighbors in such negotiations
is also rejected by those who still see Iraq as an experiment in bringing democracy
to the Arab world. In an article just published in The New Republic online,
the Council on Foreign Relations' Cook argues that the Arab states have no interest
in helping the United States succeed in creating an Arab democratic state in
Whatever their views about democratic institutions, however, Iraq's Arab neighbors
are far more concerned about the potentially destabilizing impacts of Sunni-Shi'ite
civil war in Iraq on their own societies, and the likelihood that it would allow
al-Qaeda to consolidate its bases in Iraq for training Arab jihadis for later
return to their home countries.
According to an Associated Press report on Wednesday, the intelligence chiefs
of six Arab states Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and
the United Arab Emirates and Turkey have held a series of meetings in
recent weeks to discuss plans for dealing with the impacts on the region of
worsening Sunni-Shi'ite conflict in Iraq.
Saudi Arabia in particular fears that unchecked sectarian violence in Iraq
will negatively affect its own Shi'ite minority. The Arab states also fear that
it will contribute to the destabilization of Lebanon, which has its own long-standing
Apart from worries about civil war in Iraq, the Arab states argue that the
current U.S. policy in Iraq of excluding the Arab states from negotiations is
playing into Iran's hands.
At the Arab League Summit in Khartoum late last month, Arab League chief Amr
Moussa said, "Any solution for the Iraqi problem cannot be reached without
Arabs, and Arab participation." Egypt's Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit
agreed. "There should be an Arab role" in the diplomatic efforts to
stabilize the country, he said.
Despite their fear of an overweening Iranian influence in Iraq, however, there
is no evidence that Iraq's Arab neighbors hope for a Sunni overthrow of the
Shi'ite-Kurdish-dominated government through force. Instead their aim appears
to be the protection of the rights of the minority Sunni population.
In an interview with U.S. public television's Charlie Rose in mid-February,
Saudi Ambassador to the United States Turki al-Faisal defined the two most basic
interest of Iraqi Sunnis as "an equal share in the resources of Iraq, mainly
oil" and being "safe from retribution" from Shi'ite militias.
That was a formulation with which Ambassador Khalilzad would not disagree.
Last November, the Arab League sought to help Sunni and Shi'ite parties begin
a process of reaching a political accommodation by sponsoring the Cairo Conference
of Iraqi parties. At that meeting, which excluded representatives of the Sunni
insurgents, Arab League diplomats succeeded in brokering an agreement between
Sunni and Shi'ite representatives on a set of compromise principles.
(Inter Press Service)