Another Step Toward Realism in Iran Policy

Realists in the administration of President George W. Bush appear to have won another victory over the dwindling ranks of neoconservatives and others hawks with this weekend’s announcement that Washington will soon engage in bilateral talks with Iran.

While the talks will be confined, at least initially, to the situation in Iraq, some analysts see the move as a potentially important breakthrough, particularly in light of recent shifts in U.S. policy toward North Korea, Syria, and the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

“This process of seeking diplomatic settlements with North Korea and Iran [the two remaining members of the Axis of Evil] and of actively pursuing a negotiated solution to the Arab-Israel dispute is a remarkable shift – what an old military colleague of mine once described as ‘an imperceptible 180-degree turn,'” according to Gary Sick, an Iran expert at Columbia University.

“I personally ascribe this to the combined influence of [Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice and [Secretary of Defense] Bob Gates – both old-line Cold Warriors out of the realist tradition,” said Sick, who served in the National Security Council under former President Jimmy Carter.

“In particular, the appointment of Gates to Defense has shifted the balance of power in the administration against [Vice President Dick] Cheney, who can still fulminate and utter threats, but who is on the defensive, along with his allies on the right.”

Remarkably, it was Cheney’s office that first confirmed Iran’s announcement Saturday that the talks, which were requested by Washington, would take place in Baghdad within the next few weeks, although his spokesman stressed that they would be conducted at the ambassadorial level only.

His office’s confirmation came just one day after Cheney, who has spent much of the past week visiting U.S. allies in the region, issued a battery of tough warnings to Iran from the deck of one of two U.S. aircraft carriers currently deployed to the Gulf.

“With two carrier strike groups in the Gulf, we’re sending clear messages to friends and adversaries alike,” he declared. “We’ll keep the sea lanes open. We’ll stand with our friends in opposing extremism and strategic threats. We’ll disrupt attacks on our own forces. We’ll stand with others to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons and dominating this region.”

The talks, which have been eagerly promoted for some time by an Iraqi government that has long been concerned about getting caught up in a confrontation between Washington and Tehran, will come some 18 months after Bush reportedly first gave his approval for then-Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad to open discussions with Iranian officials on stabilizing Iraq.

After Iran agreed to take part, however, the initiative was successfully scuttled by administration hawks led by Cheney, who persuaded the president that engaging the Islamic Republic would only demoralize its opposition.

In the fall of 2006, the Iraq Study Group (ISG), co-chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker, also repeatedly called for Washington to engage Iran, but that, too, was rejected by the White House, which insisted that direct talks with Tehran on any subject were possible only if it first froze its uranium-enrichment program.

However, with Bush sinking further in the public opinion polls, popular sentiment for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq clearly on the rise, and uneasy Republicans lining up behind Baker, Rice, who had just achieved an important breakthrough in talks with North Korea, announced in late February that Washington was ready to engage both Syria and Iran on stabilizing Iraq – albeit within a regional framework.

The result has been two multilateral meetings, the last early this month in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. There, Rice held an unprecedented tête-à-tête with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, although her more informal efforts to engage her Iranian counterpart, Manoucher Mottaki, were reportedly frustrated by his early departure from a scheduled dinner due to the allegedly immodest attire of a female Russian violinist.

The talks announced this weekend were worked out there, according to the Washington Post, although experts warn against excessive optimism about what might be achieved, particularly after months of intensifying tensions and threats.

“[I]t will be very difficult to gain Iranian cooperation on Iraq if some other issues are not placed on the table in search of possible common ground that might make the exchanges on Iraq more profitable,” according to Wayne White, a retired foreign service officer who served as deputy director of the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research for the Near East from 2003 to 2005.

“Iran has little incentive to cooperate if talks focus on nothing but U.S. accusations, whether accurate or not,” he said.

Indeed, both governments are believed to be deeply divided internally, and any détente – even over Iraq – will almost certainly be resisted their respective hawks.

“I think it’s foolish to believe that Iran sees its interests as compatible with American interests in Iraq,” said Richard Perle, a fellow at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute, whose views often echo Cheney’s. “I don’t think they are interested in stability. Iran has been contributing to instability. That is a deliberate policy, and I don’t expect it to change. So it’s not clear what we hope to achieve.”

The hard-line press in Iran has also questioned the usefulness of the pending talks, according to Farideh Farhi, an Iran expert at the University of Hawaii, especially in light of the U.S. military’s continued detention in Iraq of five Iranian diplomats seized by U.S. forces in Irbil in January.

“Hardliners … see the American policies as both relentless and ineffective. So their point is why bother and give the failing American administration a propaganda victory that it will then turn and use against Iran?” she asked.

“[In their view], mere talks with the U.S. constitutes a ‘loss’ for Iran,” according to Farhi. “There is indeed a perfect match between hardliners on both sides.”

Henry Precht, another retired diplomat who served as head of the Iran desk during the Iranian Revolution, also warns against expectations of a broader bilateral breakthrough, at least beyond Iraq, due to a combination of Israeli opposition, worries about Iranian ambitions among the Sunni Gulf states, and Washington’s own desire – shared by hawks and realists alike – to counter Iranian assertiveness against U.S. regional preeminence.

In this context, talking to Tehran “might do some good, and if talking doesn’t work, Washington is better positioned to act tough,” according to Precht. “Israel won’t like the fraternization, and the Saudis might get nervous, so Cheney blusters, and everyone is assured that nukes and other issues will not be on the agenda.”

According to Sick, “The big question is whether Bush is actually on board for this ride or is just willing to let it go for now in the absence of any better options.” Much, he said, will also depend on Iran itself.

“The Iranians have been angling for direct talks since at least May 2003, after their initial collaboration with the U.S. on Afghanistan dissolved into the ‘Axis of Evil.’ Now they have it. Will they be sufficiently smart and unified to make it work?” he asked. “It is very difficult after more than 27 years of hostility and vitriol to believe that either the U.S. or Iran is capable of a more enlightened approach to bilateral problems.”

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.