US-Iran: Ad Hoc Détente to Continue Despite Conservative Sweep

Despite the sweeping victory of staunchly anti-U.S. conservatives in Iran’s elections last month, analysts here believe the tentative détente between the two countries that began late last year will continue at least through the November U.S. elections.

Since January, a series of developments have suggested that neither country is seeking confrontation with the other, in major part because they are both preoccupied with other, more pressing issues.

This notion gained particular force when the United States dispatched half a dozen planeloads of emergency aid after a devastating earthquake in Bam in late December, then followed that with an offer to send a high-level delegation to inspect the damage.

While Washington was highly critical of last month’s elections and the disqualification by the conservative-dominated Guardian Council of hundreds of reformist candidates, it did not mount a major campaign to discredit them.

Similarly, while expressing “disappointment” over the conclusion in mid-February of a major oil deal between Japan and Tehran that had long been delayed due to Washington’s strong opposition, the approval itself signaled to experts here that the administration of President George W. Bush had effectively backed down, perhaps due in part to the deployment of Japanese forces to Iraq.

The latest indication of détente came last week when the U.S.-dominated Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in occupied Iraq approved plans for the construction of an oil pipeline across the Shatt al-Arab waterway to the Iranian port of Abadan, a project expected to be completed by the end of this year.

Washington went along with the recommendation by Iraq’s oil ministry as a way to increase Baghdad’s exports – hence its export earnings – which have been held up by bottlenecks at Basra and sabotage in the northern part of the country.

While US officials withheld comment on the proposal, Iraq’s oil minister Ibrahim Bahr al-Uloum told the Financial Times that CPA administrator Paul Bremer “says he realizes (the Iraqis) have to have good relations with all their neighbors.”

Several days later, US officials told reporters here Washington does not plan to press the board of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to refer Iran’s nuclear program to the United Nations Security Council for possible sanctions.

Instead, they said, the Bush administration will align itself more closely with its Western European allies, Britain, France and Germany, who took the lead last October in engaging Iran on its nuclear ambitions and who prefer a go-slow approach through the IAEA, which has been steadily uncovering previously secret components of Iran’s nuclear program.

Both moves marked setbacks to hawks in the administration who last May succeeded in cutting off a quiet dialogue between the US State Department and Iran after intelligence agencies traced bombings against western residential compounds in Riyadh to telephone calls from officials of the al-Qaeda terrorist group inside Iranian territory.

The hawks, led by neo-conservatives and other hard-liners around Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney, have charged that Iran has “harbored” senior al-Qaeda officials since the former ruling Taliban was ousted in neighboring Afghanistan at the end of 2001.

Iran, which has said it has detained a number of al-Qaeda militants found on its territory, has strongly denied it supports the group in any way.

Tehran has also hinted it is prepared to turn over the detainees if Washington repatriates several thousand members of the Mojahadin-e-Khalq (MeK), an armed Iranian rebel group based in Iraq that is officially under the detention and control of US occupation troops. In January, Washington shut down the MeK’s Iraq-based radio station.

The hawks have also charged Iran is turning a blind eye to, if not actively helping, Islamist militants allegedly infiltrating into Iraq to join up with the insurgency or terrorist movements there. While Tehran has admitted it cannot entirely control its border with Iraq, it has strongly denied any complicity in efforts to destabilize its neighbor, a denial most independent experts here find credible.

“Many of the hard-liners (in Tehran) would love to see us fail (in Iraq), but failure would mean civil war, which they don’t want,” said Daniel Brumberg, an Iran specialist who teaches at Georgetown University here. “Mainstream conservatives,” he added at a forum sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “don’t want us to fail.”

Hadi Semati, a visiting scholar at Carnegie who also teaches at Tehran University and is identified with the reformist movement there, agreed, asserting there is a broad consensus among conservative and reformist foreign policy makers favoring Iraqi democratization.” Any option in Iraq is favorable to Iran, with the exception of chaos or partition,” he said.

Ironically, according to Semati, Iranian conservatives have emerged as big winners as a result of the Bush administration’s “war on terrorism.” Not only have two of their most dangerous enemies – the Taliban and former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein – been eliminated, but Bush’s own rhetoric against Iran as part of the “axis of evil” weakened pro-democratic and reformist forces.

“Democracy-building is going to be dead to the extent it is seen as coming from external influences,” he said. “The US has a huge credibility gap on democracy in the region.”

Moreover, Tehran’s ability to make things more difficult for the United States in both Iraq and Afghanistan if it chose to do so – a notion that is conceded even by administration hard-liners – has also given the resurgent conservatives greater confidence vis-à-vis Washington, say analysts here.

This confidence was on display last month when former Iranian president and power broker Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani told a prominent Tehran newspaper that Washington is “stuck in the mud in Iraq, and they know that if Iran wanted to, it could make their problems even worse.”

Rafsanjani suggested that dialogue might even now be possible. “For me, talking is not a problem.”

“They were initially worried that the US would turn on them next (after Iraq), but the conservatives see what a mess we’ve made there, and they’re quite confident, especially with the conservatives preparing to take over the legislative and executive branches,” according to Gary Sick, a veteran Iran expert at Columbia University who worked on the National Security Council staff of former President Jimmy Carter (1977–81).

Sick told IPS that Rafsanjani’s statement was a “signal,” but cautioned that it remains to be seen if he will emerge as the strongest power, or whether a harder-line group led by Iran’s highest cleric, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, will be the stronger force in the new Majlis.

Either way, he argued, dramatic changes in Iranian foreign policy are unlikely until the political situation is more clearly defined there, possibly not until after next year’s presidential elections.

Similarly, say Sick and other analysts, it would be premature to consider the Bush administration’s recent conciliatory steps as part of a larger overall strategy for détente.

“As far as I can tell, the US really still doesn’t have any policy or broad strategy toward Iran,” he said. “The reality of the situation is the US right now is not looking for a fight with Iran. We’re suspicious of what they’re up to, but, on the other hand, we have no reason to antagonize them.”

“But whether this is more than a temporary thing is doubtful,” he added, noting that the split on Iran between administration hawks and more realist officials in the State Department and elsewhere in the bureaucracy remains “very deep.”

Indeed, in a much-remarked article, “Going Soft on Iran,” this week in the neo-conservative Weekly Standard, Iran specialist Reuel Marc Gerecht of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) warned that any “realist” strategy of engagement was doomed to failure and that “in the end, only democracy in Iran will finally solve the nuclear and terrorist problems.”

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.