ARBIL, Iraq – US-Iranian talks about Iraq have been received with skepticism and some foreboding here, with some calling for limitations on the extent of issues that the two countries can negotiate regarding Iraq.
The ice-breaking ambassador-level talks Monday between the two countries, which have had hostile relations since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, signal a change in the official stated policies of both.
The move by the George W. Bush administration to talk to Iran came months after the Iraq Study Group a US Congress-appointed task force urged the US government to launch a new “diplomatic offensive” by engaging other countries in the region to help stabilize Iraq.
Despite harsh Iranian and US official rhetoric against one another, what could sweeten the bitter pill of direct talks are results satisfactory to both sides.
Hassan Kazemi Qomi, Iran’s ambassador in Baghdad, told the Associated Press that the two countries would meet again within the month.
Describing the talks as “symbolically important diplomacy,” Denise Natali, a US professor of politics at Arbil’s English-language University of Kurdistan, said she does not, however, “put too much stake into that meeting.”
The talks began at a time when the United States has increased the number of its warships in the Persian Gulf to three and is exerting unprecedented pressure over Iran’s nuclear program. That has worried Iran and could well be one of the reasons that pushed it to the negotiation table.
“Americans are not going to promise Iranians that we are not going to hurt you,” Natali said. But Iran is not going to stop influencing Iraq either, she added, until they get guarantees that Washington will change its attitude towards them.
However, the question for many here is to what extent Iran is willing and can truly influence the situation in Iraq. The challenge for Iranians is that even if they can curb Shi’ite armed groups, then who would keep the Sunni insurgency in check? Iran will not agree to rein in its proxies in Iraq, fearing it would undermine its power base.
Several Sunni Arab countries are believed to be helping Iraqi Sunnis, to counterbalance Iranian support for Shi’ites.
“You cannot involve Iran (to curb Shi’ites.) without involving Saudi Arabia and Syria (to contain Sunnis),” Natali said. “Why would Iran change behavior if the Sunni insurgents don’t do that?”
Nonetheless, Iran is on the horns of a dilemma in the official talks with the United States: While Iranians want to exploit the Iraq talks to open a greater window of subsequent negotiations with the US over long-standing problems and especially its controversial nuclear program. they also do not want to be the one that saves US face by assisting it in bringing about relative stability in Iraq.
Both the US and Iran accuse one another of backing each other’s armed opponents. Washington says Iran is backing Shi’ite militias in Iraq, with funds, weapons and training, to strike US and coalition targets. But Iran’s assistance is not only limited to Shi’ite groups. Kurdish officials have implicitly accused Iran of facilitating and assisting the al-Qaeda affiliated Ansar al-Islam to attack Kurdish guard posts on the border between Iraq and Iran.
In return, Iran accuses the US of harboring and provoking armed Iranian opposition groups like Mujahedin-e-Khalq and Kurdistan Freedom Life Party (PJAK) against Iran.
Iran also wants the release of its five officials arrested in Arbil by US forces in January. Apparently to add pressure to the demand, it has arrested four US citizens of Iranian origin recently.
Meanwhile, inside Iraq, politicians seem to be concerned about the scope and limits of the talks. In fact there are fears that both Iran and the US may use the Iraq talks to push their broader regional agendas.
Bukhari Abdullah, a Kurdish member of Iraqi parliament says, “The talks should be conducted in a manner that would be in the interest of Iraqis”.
“Iraqi parliamentarians will have their stance on the results of these talks,” Abdullah, whose parliamentary bloc has 53 seats in Iraqi parliament, told IPS. He said the bilateral talks should focus on improving Iraq’s security situation and should not get into discussions to influence Iraq’s politics.
Iraqi Kurds had earlier voiced concern over the Iraq Study Group’s recommendation for greater role for neighboring countries in Iraq’s affairs. They believe that would be at the expense of Kurds since some of Iraq’s neighbors have sizable restive Kurdish populations and are worried about the Kurds’ status in post-Saddam Iraq.
“If the results would not be in Iraq’s interest, then many parliamentary groups will not accept it,” Abdullah said.
But for Iran, it seems to be quite a good bid of opportunity. Tempted by official US requests for talks, Tehran wants to use them to assert itself as a major regional power. It also cannot close eyes to the threats posed by long-term instability in its neighboring country.
“Stability and instability in Iraq will both affect Iran, since they have a long shared border,” said Sarbast Tofiq, professor of international law from Arbil’s Salahaddin University.
Modern Iraq has been a hotbed of pan-Arab Sunni-dominated nationalism, which runs opposite to the Shi’ite Islamic republic’s ambitions for regional supremacy.
“Iranians expect a stable government to come to power in Iraq in the future, whether they want it or not. But what is important for them (Iranians) is that that future government should not be hostile to Iran,” Tofiq told IPS. “In fact, Iran would like to see a stable government in Iraq, provided it is dominated by Shi’ites.”