US edges closer to engaging Iran
April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
T S Eliot's famous opening lines from The Waste Land come to mind as Washington confirms that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is heading for the Middle East to attend an international conference regarding the Iraq situation, in Kuwait on April 22. This will be no ordinary run-of-the-mill international conference. It's about Iraq. And Rice may well bump into her Iranian counterpart, Manouchehr Mottaki.
The big question is, as Eliot wrote, will they "drink coffee, and talk for an hour?" Indeed, will Mottaki call Rice "the hyacinth girl"? All that US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack would say at his press briefing on Wednesday was that "there's nothing on the schedule for them to meet". He wouldn't make promises, nor rule out anything. But then Tehran hasn't yet announced Mottaki's participation at the Kuwait conference.
McCormack, however, volunteered an estimation that the Iranians have incrementally thawed in recent months. He added, "There was a sort of avoidance [initially] on the part of the Iranians. But that's changed ... They [Rice and Mottaki] didn't have what I would describe as any substantive conversations, but there was some interaction [at a previous Istanbul meet on Iraq]."
So, if the "iceman cometh" from Tehran, this could undoubtedly turn out to be one of the most crucial missions undertaken by Rice in her diplomatic career. The entire Middle East will be watching, attentively looking for clues in Rice's gait, her demeanor. They will want to know whether Washington is taking the plunge for unconditional talks with Tehran.
Everyone knows that when the Americans talk to the Iranians, finally, the kaleidoscope of Middle Eastern politics will have irrevocably shifted. The stakes are particularly high for the Middle East's "pro-West" sclerotic rulers. There is already serious unrest in Egypt, a key US ally. Helena Cobban, the contributing editor of the Boston Review and veteran writer on the Middle East, promptly put down in her blog a recollection from the great Cairo riots of 1977, when the late Mohammed Hassanein Heikal told her as he sat in his lovely Nile-side office at the al-Ahram newspaper that "the Egyptian people are like the Nile: they run deep and apparently quietly - until the point where suddenly they burst their banks".
There is surely expectation in the air, as Egypt is still in many respects the weightiest of all Arab countries. En route to Kuwait, Rice is taking care to stop in Bahrain for an exclusive meeting on April 21 with her counterparts from Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman. McCormack was short on specifics, merely saying, "I would expect they'd talk a lot about Iraq." Surely, there is a lot on their minds - especially regarding Iran.
The pro-West regimes in the Middle East will be keen to hear from Rice the import of a series of signals in recent days suggestive of a maneuvering in the Iran policy of the George W Bush administration. What is very obvious is that a lot of back-channel contacts are going on - rearranging the deckchairs, as it were. On balance, it certainly appears that the US Congressional testimonies by the top US commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus and the US ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, earlier in the week in Washington, turned out to be a low-key affair that was deliberately, almost ostentatiously, mild in rhetoric against Iran.
Crocker at one point said, "We support constructive relations between Iran and Iraq," and he went on to acknowledge, "Iran has a dialogue with everyone" - the good, the bad and the ugly - in the Iraqi Shi'ite community. There was the customary criticism of Iran arming and training "special groups", but Crocker balanced it by saying Iran has a relationship with every group in Iraq, not just Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army, which was the US's main adversary in the recent fighting in the southern Iraqi city of Basra. These are important signals by way of exchanging glances.
Tehran promptly responded at the Foreign Ministry level on Wednesday, but with a routine statement to the effect that the US, by accusing Iran, was finding an alibi for the failure of its "surge" policy in Iraq and was "playing with words". But the statement concurred that Iran had no favorites in Iraq. The Foreign Ministry spokesman said Tehran accepted that the measures taken by the Nuri al-Maliki government in Baghdad against the "militants" aimed at establishing "security and stability in that war-ravaged country". No senior Iranian leader bothered to join issue with Petraeus or Crocker. Why should they? The Iranians said the minimum needed by way of a rejoinder for the sake of record, and indicated they'd move on.
On its part, Tehran would have noticed that its own announcement on Tuesday regarding the addition of another 6,000 centrifuges to its nuclear reprocessing plant at Natanz also turned out to be an uneventful affair. Washington barely took notice. There were no threatening noises of fire and brimstone. The mood was almost one of stoic calm. In fact, coinciding with the Iranian announcement, senior US officials were quoted in The New York Times as offering further "incentives" to Iran, if only Tehran suspended uranium enrichment and negotiated with the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany. "We are willing, within the boundaries of what is acceptable to us, to consider an elucidation of the incentive track," said a US official, who of course asked not to be named.
Similarly, Iran also took in its stride the massive five-day civil defense drill starting on April 6 ordered by Israel, which was the first under the National Security Authority established last September and involving the entire Israeli security apparatus and billed as its largest-ever mobilization. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak was uncharacteristically blunt in his statement that the drill aimed at preparing the country for a new conflict. Israeli National Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer threatened that the "Iranians are provoking us through their allies Syria and Hezbollah, [providing] them with much weaponry, and with that we have to contend".
But Tehran shrugged off the Israeli temper tantrums. No senior figure felt it necessary to comment publicly. A lone commentary by the Tehran Times newspaper observed philosophically that the Israeli "move has raised suspicions in regional countries, which are well aware of the evil nature of the Zionist regime". On the other hand, Iranian Defense Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najar explained that the Iranian missile capability is only intended as a "deterrent defense power", which Iran is entitled to have, given the missile attacks during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988).
Such restraint is unusual in Israel-Iran rhetoric. Ironically, Iran's Fars news agency, which is close to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), leaked a story virtually absolving Israel of the responsibility for the murder of top Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh on February 12 in Damascus, over which tensions were building in the region, even as the Syrian investigation report on the murder was due to be released. Fars quoted "well-informed sources" to the effect that Saudi Arabia was behind the murder.
Fars named Saudi Prince Banda al-Sultan, formerly Saudi ambassador in Washington, as responsible and that the Saudis were retaliating for the 1996 car bomb attack at the Abdul Aziz airbase in Khobar near Dahran in Saudi Arabia, which was allegedly planned and executed by Mughniyeh. The Fars report would have brought a welcome relief to Israeli intelligence, since the prevailing impression in the region was that Syria would accuse Israel of involvement in Mughniyeh's assassination, which in turn would be the signal for Hezbollah to retaliate and for Israel to hit at Lebanon and possibly even Syria.
These are unusual happenings. All this while through the past week, Middle Easterners have been furiously chatting away that war is imminent. The prevailing mainstream opinion seems to be that "the prospect of a US military strike against Iran is increasing", as Gao Zugui, deputy director of the Institute of Security and Strategy, wrote in the government newspaper China Daily on Thursday.
But it is over Iraq that Tehran is making overtures. Tehran knows the US position is eroding fast in Iraq. The continuing mortar attacks on the Baghdad Green Zone are indeed a great humiliation for Washington. An Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman issued a statement on Wednesday condemning the attack on the Green Zone, the intention being to distance itself from provocative acts against the US. The statement was issued a day after the Iranian spokesman acknowledged the receipt of an official communication from the US suggesting a next round of talks on the Iraq situation.
Equally significant was the visit by former Iraqi prime minister Ibrahim Jaafari to Tehran this week. It is well known that Jaafari has close links with the US and Britain. In all likelihood, he acted as a "back channel". The Iranian hosts took great pains to emphasize in talks with Jaafari that Tehran could be depended on as a collaborator for the stabilization of the Iraqi situation. The secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, Saeed Jalili, assured Jaafari, "Iraq's security is of utmost importance for Iran and Iran will spare no efforts to help maintain security in Iraq." The head of the Expediency Council, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, also spoke in similar vein. Conceivably, Jaafari's consultations were aimed at preparing the ground for US-Iran talks regarding Iraq.
It is difficult to be judgemental about back-channel contacts. But, at any rate, following Jaafari's consultations in Tehran, the mass demonstration that Muqtada had threatened on the streets of Baghdad on Wednesday on the fifth anniversary of the US occupation of the city was abruptly called off. As Patrick Cockburn, the Independent newspaper's ace hand in Iraq, told Mother Jones magazine in a recent interview, the idea that Muqtada is a maverick cleric and a firebrand is completely contrary to his track record - "one of those absurd journalistic cliches that takes on a life on its own". Cockburn adds that Muqtada is in fact "very cautious, never pushing things too far, trying not to be pushed into a corner". And there are rumors Muqtada is sheltering at present in the holy city of Qom in Iran.
How do these trends add up? First, Iran is taking care to ensure that tensions with Israel remain under check. It doesn't appear to be Iran's game plan to encourage Hezbollah to have a go at Israel. The Fars news agency report on the death of Mughniyeh forecloses a Hezbollah revenge attack on Israel, which would have in all probability triggered a chain reaction provoking Israel into a war, in which Iran might unwittingly or accidentally get embroiled.
Second, Iran is constantly taking precautions not to provoke the US unnecessarily. The emphasis, on the other hand, is on the positive role that Tehran can play as a factor of stability in the Iraq situation. The overall Iranian strategy of maximizing its influence with the various Iraqi groups remains very much in place. But according to a survey by WorldPublicOpinion.org (WPO) released in Washington on Monday, the Iranian public believes that the threat of a military attack by the US has substantially reduced, though the deep distrust of American intentions remains.
In sum, Tehran is displaying flexibility, which is possible with the consolidation the regime has managed in domestic politics. There is no doubt that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is in absolute control. The IRGC is riding high. According to the American poll by WPO, two-thirds of Iranians found satisfaction with both Iran's form of government and the performance of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. Indeed, 74% of Iranians trusted their government to act in the best interests of the nation.
Any long time observer of Iran will agree that the regime possesses the authority today to talk one-to-one with the US and won't have to look over the shoulder and worry about lone snipers in the corridors of power taking a pot shot at it while it engages the "enemy" at the gates.
From Washington's point of view, for the first time in a long while, perhaps, it may set aside the gnawing worry that in the Byzantine world of Iranian politics, it is indeed talking to the right person in Tehran and won't end up pinned and wriggling on the wall in embarrassment. If diplomacy is all about timing, Rice should engage Mottaki.
M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India's ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).