Tussling Over Iran

What appears to be going on regarding Iran is a struggle within the administration over how to approach the Shi’ite mullah-dominated country that looms so large not only in the American imagination but as a regional power that is bound to have considerable influence in the region, especially with Iraq (assuming there is an entity that can be called Iraq in a few years). The basic disagreement is over whether Iran is an essentially hostile power that can only be dealt with through threats and military means, or a country with which the U.S. will have to deal in the future through various means if we hope to get a resolution in Iraq that doesn’t look like abject defeat.

Developments this week suggest that President Bush, probably influenced by years of demonizing Iran and the influence of Vice President Cheney, is fairly firmly on the side of an aggressive approach. But this may not be the final outcome.

THE WE-HAVE-TO-DEAL SCENARIO

Here’s one way to look at the situation:

The meetings Monday between Iranian and U.S. representatives over the future of Iraq have been mentioned mostly as fairly inconsequential, with maybe a paragraph or so inserted in a story whose main focus was which group of Iraqi parliamentarians quit that day. But Stratfor.com thinks they’re a lot more significant than that, and I’m inclined to agree.

The US, Iraq and Iran have met a number of times since the first multilateral regional meeting on Iraq’s future held March 10 in Baghdad, notably May 4, May 28 and July 24. The talks in July lasted seven hours and the talks on Monday are said to have gone on for four hours and were described as "frank and serious," diplo-speak for they might have gotten down to brass tacks.

Why such extensive meetings? The ostensible reason is to work out arrangements for stability in Iraq, and that’s surely part of it. I suspect there’s more going on than the two sides trying to plead with one another to control whatever guerrillas they have influence over.

Both Iran and the U.S. must now realize they’re not going to get what they had hoped for from the Iraq war, so they’re trying to work out a least-damage scenario for both sides.

The U.S., of course, is not going to get a democratic and stable Iraq that serves as a beacon and inspiration to the rest of the Middle East. But it is also becoming clear that Iran is not going to get a de facto Shi’ite satellite state out of the deal; while many of Iraq’s Shi’ites are friendly toward Shi’ite-dominated Iran, many of Iraq’s Shi’ites still have bad feelings for Iran left over from the 1980s war. The Sunnis may be a minority, but they’re too troublesome for Iraq to be an Iranian vassal, and the Kurds are semi-autonomous (which is a problem for Iran, which has a substantial Kurdish population in neighboring regions) and possibly more militarily capable than either the Sunni or Shi’ite.

OTHER NEIGHBORS

Saudi Arabia is concerned too. It doesn’t want to see Iran become more dominant in the region, so it wants Iraq as a buffer. So what the talks could have been about is determining whether there’s a way to create an Iraq that is not a threat to Iran nor dominated by Iran. It’s all fiendishly complicated, and none of the parties to the talks really trust one another. But if they succeed – a long shot – we just might see this war end through regional negotiations rather than anything resembling a military victory.

Adding to the idea that the United States might have to think of some way of dealing with Iran other than demonization, relentless hostility and threats of military action is the fact that both of our putatively most valued allies in the region have obviously come to some sort of accommodation with the mullahs’ regime. When he met earlier this week with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Bush was apparently taken aback by Karzai’s view that Iran has "been a helper" in Afghanistan, and brushed aside administration accusations that Iran has been arming the Taliban. And he felt compelled to lecture Karzai in public.

"They’re not a force for good, as far as we can see," said Bush of Iran. "They’re a destabilizing influence wherever they are. Now, the president will have to talk to you about Afghanistan. But I would be very cautious about whether or not the Iranian influence there in Afghanistan is a positive force. And therefore, it’s going to be up to them to prove to us and prove to the government that they are."

In other words, we’ve invested so much emotional energy into demonizing Iran that we consider them guilty until proven innocent, no matter the country, no matter the circumstances.

Then later in the week Bush was confronted with the fact that Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, apparently our chosen vessel and only hope for anything remotely resembling a stable government in Iraq, had traveled to Tehran and seemed to be cozying up not just to Iran, but to its calculatedly provocative president, Ahmadinejad, even being photographed holding hands with him. Just before leaving for a Kennebunkport weekend, Bush said he hoped Maliki was delivering a tough message to Tehran, but "if the signal is that Iran is constructive, I will have a heart to heart with my friend, the prime minister, because I don’t believe they are constructive."

"My message to him [presumably Ahmadinejad rather than Maliki; there might have been a veiled threat to Maliki but the Bushman doesn’t often do subtle] is, when we catch you playing a non-constructive role, there will be a price to pay." He also warned that "there will be consequences" if the U.S. actually catches Iranians shipping weapons into Iraq.

LIVING WITH THE CONSEQUENCES

All that tough talk may make Bush feel better, but both Karzai and Maliki know they’re going to have to live in the region and they’re going to have to deal with Iran, the most powerful country in the immediate neighborhood, one way or another, for the foreseeable future. The United States might or might not be around in a few years, and even if it is it is apparent to all the players that it is far from being infinitely capable of enforcing its writ – backing up its tough talk.

So it’s difficult to blame Karzai and Maliki for preferring not to antagonize Iran. They’re probably a little concerned that the frat boy in the White House is so intent on antagonizing Iran on their behalf. What’s more difficult is to understand the arrogance of a leader who believes he knows, from halfway around the world and a lifetime of incuriosity about the world outside West Texas, better than those who are actually there and have been there for years, how genuinely threatening one of their neighbors is, or what the best way of dealing with that neighbor is.

It’s a little reminiscent of the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. One of the justifications for the invasion was that Saddam posed such a great danger to his neighbors and to regional stability. In fact, however, none of the actual neighbors was so concerned that they wanted to do anything more provocative than permitting the U.S. and Britain to continue enforcing the "no-fly" zones. The Gulf States went along when it was obvious the U.S. was going to invade whether the neighbors thought it was needed or not, but there still wasn’t a great deal of enthusiasm. Curious that the U.S. is so determined to "protect" neighbors of demonized regimes who don’t see much need for that kind of protection and certainly wouldn’t undertake it on their own.

YOUR GUESS OR MINE

So what’s going on? Were the Monday meetings really just a non-stop lecture from the U.S. representatives about how Iran better stop shipping weapons into Iraq or else, or was their discussion of mutual interests and how they might cooperate on some kind of a least-worst option for Iraq? If the discussion was the latter, did Vice President Cheney or other elements in the administration who seem to think anything hinting of diplomacy or discussion is a sign of weakness get to President Bush and badger him into making more bellicose statements?

Or was the president simply posturing, as is his wont and the wont of all kinds of people comfortably ensconced in safe jobs in Washington where they won’t have to face the consequences of their warmongering personally? Is the tough talk just that, or is it possibly a calculated way to hustle along a more accommodative agenda that was the real subject of the talks Monday and of ongoing talks?

I confess that I don’t know. I still suspect that whatever the president’s knee-jerk inclinations, the military will let it be known that initiating military action against Iran would be disastrous, further decimating a military force that is already stretched too thin by the demands placed upon it in Iraq. But my crystal ball is pretty cloudy just now.

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Author: Alan Bock

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Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).