US-Iran talks: Looking beyond the limits
On May 28, US and Iranian ambassadors to Iraq will hold the first bilateral dialogue between the two countries in more than a quarter of century. The last such occasion was in 1980 in Algiers, which led to the release of US Embassy hostages in Iran and, in return, the US agreed to respect Iran's sovereign rights.
After that, the sole "unofficial" dialogue was spearheaded by Ronald Reagan's national security advisor, Robert McFarlane, who made a surprise visit to Tehran in 1986 in connection with what became known as the Iran-Contra affair; Iran's revolutionary leader, ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, consented to that visit in light of Iran's pressing demands regarding the Iran-Iraq war. Khomeini's decision is often cited by Iranian pundits as clear evidence of his realpolitik pragmatism, more vividly reflected in his acceptance of a United Nations ceasefire resolution that silenced the guns after a bloody eight-year conflict with Iraq, which is currently embroiled in a seemingly worsening insecurity epidemic.
Much has happened since then, including several contacts in multilateral settings, such as the "six-plus-two" meetings at the UN on Afghanistan, and the post-Taliban conference in Bonn in which Iran's outgoing ambassador to the UN, Mohammad Javad Zarif, played a key role in persuading the Afghan factions to accept a unity formula.
Today, US officials cite US-Iran cooperation on Afghanistan as a model, potentially capable of being replicated for Iraq. Their views are not necessarily shared by the Iranians, who rightly complain that Iran was labeled part of an "axis of evil" by President George W Bush right after the Bonn summit, along with Iraq and North Korea.
This was hardly a positive follow-up, even though through the prism of Washington's neo-conservatives, intent on using US victories in Iran's neighborhood as a springboard for regime change in Tehran, it made perfect sense.
With the mounting troubles in both Iraq and Afghanistan, Washington's new realism, reflected in the bipartisan Iraq Study Group (ISG) report, is to defer any dream of regime change and, instead, engage Tehran's ruling clergy over stability in Iraq and the whole Persian Gulf region.
Six months later, the Bush administration is finally practicing the recommendations of the ISG, hoping to achieve tangible benefits by holding direct talks led by its seasoned, Farsi-speaking diplomat, Chester Crocker, who was once the US's consul in the southern Iranian city of Khoramshahr.
This is indeed good news for the Iraqi government, which has formally requested the meeting, confirming yet again Iran's influence in Iraq. "The US is a major player and so is Iran, and there will be room for some substantial discussions for the stability of Iraq," Iraq's Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari stated. At an Iraq security summit in Egypt last month, Zebari warned against a premature withdrawal of US forces, cautioning that the question of a timetable depends on the preparedness of Iraqi forces to take on the responsibility of maintaining security for the whole country.
Yet, as a new study by Britain's Chatham House aptly indicates, the Iraqi government is actually on the "verge of collapse" and is largely irrelevant to developments in many parts of the country. The study refers to not one but several "civil wars" plaguing Iraq, and has a bleak assessment of the prospects for any qualitative improvement in the security situation.
Such negative reports add an even greater urgency to the dialogue between the US and Iran, given their common interests in maintaining the present Iraqi government, although the Iranians sense a shifting mood on the US's part and Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei recently accused the US of "plotting to overthrow the Iraqi government". Khamenei's fear is increasingly shared by Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. According to a recent report in the Washington Post, "There is growing concern in Baghdad that Washington is developing a 'Plan B' that involves both hitting Iran and ousting Maliki."
Thus, one of Iran's main objectives is to make sure that there is no substantive change of heart on the part of the US government regarding the viability of the Shi'ite-led government in Baghdad. The US, on the other hand, is soliciting Iran's cooperation against the insurgents and with respect to the increasingly quarreling Shi'ite factions.
The meeting in Baghdad is the culmination of arduous preparations begun last year when the former US envoy to Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad, broke the news that he had the blessing of the White House for a face-to-face meeting with his Iranian counterpart in Iraq. (See Mission impossible? True US-Iran Dialogue Asia Times Online, April 8, 2006.)
At the time, Iran reciprocated and Khamenei sanctioned the proposed dialogue, only to be disheartened when the US balked, failed to make an official written request for such a meeting and, what is more, ratcheted up the accusations of Iranian meddling in Iraq.
Mindful of that experience, Khamenei is taking no chances this time. In a major speech in the holy city of Mashhad, he spoke of Iran's "logical and 100% defendable position in negating dialogue with the United States" and, in the same breath, put his seal of approval on the coming meeting in Baghdad by insisting that it will focus only on "the responsibility of the occupiers toward Iraq's security".
Khamenei's speech ignited lively debate in the Iranian press, with the conservative daily, Kayhan, interpreting it in a front-page display as "dialogue with the US, never". The more liberal press put the accent on Khamenei's blessing of the approaching dialogue, hoping that it will be the harbinger of much hoped for normalization. According to some Tehran analysts, the administration of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad will be able to reap several domestic and foreign dividends from the dialogue, reportedly favored by most Iranians, who yearn for tranquility in their external relations.
For one thing, no matter how insistent on a "limited to Iraq only" agenda by both sides, these talks have the potential to develop into broader, follow-up dialogue that could conceivably tackle outstanding issues on the US-Iran plate, including the nuclear standoff. For the moment, the less this potential, and the related possibility of a full normalization resulting from such initiatives, is talked about, the better. This in light of past experiences, particularly during the presidency of Mohammad Khatami when the stiffened reaction of Iran's hardliners torpedoed any chances of a meaningful breakthrough.
Iraq's Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi has attacked the dialogue as "damaging to Iraq's sovereignty", a biting criticism that has put the Iranians on the defensive. "There is a con side to this dialogue and that is the image problem. Tehran may appear as Washington's junior partner in Iraq and that does not bode well for Iran's relations with the Arab world," says a veteran Tehran political analyst who foresees no major agreement between the US and Iran and sees the talks' impact mostly on the level of "political psychology" and "symbolic politics". In other words, don't expect the reopening of the US Embassy in Tehran any time soon.
This is a conclusion shared by a number of US pundits, such as Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who has rightly stated: "Simply going from dual-track diplomacy to official dialogue is in itself a step forward, even if it has no immediate benefit. In the longer term it may lay the groundwork for much better understanding and at least more official negotiations between the United States and Iraq."
Ideally, a vigorous diplomatic push by both sides could muster a major breakthrough in stalemated relations. Currently, the US's interests in Iran are handled by the Swiss Embassy, but there is no consular office and Iranians seeking US visas have to travel elsewhere, chiefly Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. Their chores can be substantially reduced if Iran consents to the opening of a US consulate on one of its Persian Gulf islands, such as Kish, presently propped up as a tourist hub in the region.
The advantages of such a mini-initiative are multifold. First, recalling how the British ambassador to Iran played a key role in diffusing the crisis over the 15 British sailors and marines detained by Iran in March, the presence of some US diplomats, even below the ambassadorial level, can be similarly important in keeping the channels of communication between the two countries constantly open.
Second, a US consulate away from the center of political intrigue in Tehran provides a relatively safe alternative, for example with regard to potential demonstrations. Third, with both the US and Iran agreeing on the need to enhance cultural and artistic exchanges, this would mean easier access to US visas by Iranians traveling to the US.
In conclusion, there is a protean value in dreaming about stepping up the ladder of US-Iran normalization, no matter how difficult, or slow, the climb. One thing past experience shows is the inadvisability of trying to jump the steps and somehow short-circuiting the arduous process, or dreaming of perfect harmony not buffeted by myriad differences. But, as the experience of both countries with other nations - the US's relations with Russia and Iran's relations with Saudi Arabia - clearly show, the sine qua non of diplomatic relations is not the resolution of all disputes, but rather making them "manageable". And that, certainly, is something for which the Iranian and American leaders can, and should, strive.
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and co-author of "Negotiating Iran's Nuclear Populism", Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume XII, Issue 2, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu. He also wrote "Keeping Iran's nuclear potential latent", Harvard International Review, and is author of Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction.