US Wonks Warming to Iran, Arab Roles in Peace Talks

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 … Muslim neighbors, 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 forces

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 Iraq.

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 Sunni-Shi’ite conflict.

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)

Author: Gareth Porter

Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published in 2006.