Is a US-Iran deal on the Middle East possible?

Posted in Iran | 19-Dec-08 | Author: Gareth Porter| Source: Asia Times

An anti-US mural, taking the form of the US flag displaying skulls in the place of stars and bearing the message "Down With The U.S.A", in central Tehran.

TEHRAN - Would a negotiated agreement between Iran and the Barack Obama administration be feasible if Obama sent the right signals? The answer one gets from Iranian officials and think-tank analysts is, "Yes, but ... "

The Iranian national security establishment has long salivated over the prospect of an agreement with Washington. But there's a big difference between Iranian and US ideas of what such an accord would look like.

Washington is fixated on what it would take to get Iran to agree to stop enriching uranium. On the other hand, Iranians interviewed here indicate that an agreement would only be possible if it represented a fundamental change in the US-Iran relationship.

Iranian officials and analysts see the problem of US-Iranian relations as a seamless web of issues on which agreement must be reached as a whole. And in addition to the bilateral issues of normal diplomatic and economic relations, they see a new US-Iranian understanding on the Middle East as essential.

The problem for Iran, they observe, is that it feels it must base its policies across the entire region on the assumption of US hostility. "As long as there is a lack of understanding between the United States and Iran, any move by the United States worries us," said Hamid Reza Dehghani, director of the Center for the Persian Gulf and Middle East at the Iranian Foreign Ministry's think-tank, the Institute for Political and International Studies.

On the other hand, Iranian officials appear to recognize that the United States and Iran do have some objective interests in common in the region - especially opposition to al-Qaeda and related Islamic terrorists. Despite past US policies that threatened Iranian interests, therefore, they see potential opportunities for US-Iranian cooperation in the region.

"If there is a chance for finding commonalities with the United States," said Dehghani, "it will be found in the Middle East."

An adviser to the Foreign Ministry who asked not to be named, because he is not authorized to speak to foreign journalists, told Inter Press Service that a "grand bargain" - an agreement on all the issues that both sides wish to raise - is possible, based on a joint recognition of the threat from al-Qaeda and related terrorist groups.

He added that US-Iran understandings on both Iraq and Afghanistan would be "central" to any such agreement.

Iran has long been willing to deal directly with the United States on both Afghanistan and Iraq, having participated in a series of secret meetings with US diplomats in Geneva from late 2001 to spring 2003 before the George W Bush administration cut them off.

Dehghani explained the Iranian eagerness to deal with the United States on Iraq now as a function of relatively greater Iranian capabilities and leverage. But he also admitted Iranian officials are concerned over whether the United States will abide by the agreement it has reached with the Iraqi government to withdraw all of its forces by 2011.

Despite president-elect's Obama's campaign pledges on troop withdrawal, and the US commitment to Iraq to withdraw completely by the end of 2011, Dehghani said, "I'm doubtful about it." He cites factors that are favorable to US withdrawal: the fact that the US-Iraqi withdrawal agreement was imposed on an unwilling US government by Iraqi public opinion, and factions in the Iraqi government "friendly to Iran" - an obvious reference to Iraqi Shi'ite political parties which had long enjoyed Iranian patronage and are now part of the Nuri al-Maliki regime in Baghdad.

What worries Iranian strategists are elements of the Iraqi regime they view as responsive to US interests. "Iraqi government security and military forces were established directly by the United States," said Dehghani, "and the heads of these systems are not friendly to Iran".

But Dehghani denied the Bush administration charge that it has been "favoring special groups in Iraq, regardless of the central government".

If the US and Iran reached a broader agreement to end their hostility, Dehghani said, it would make a complete US withdrawal from Iraq "more feasible", implying that the main US interest in keeping troops in Iraq now is to contain Iranian influence.

On Afghanistan, Iranian officials appear to view the brief period of US-Iran cooperation against the Taliban and al-Qaeda after the September 11, 2001, attacks, which was terminated as a result of a neo-conservative initiative in Washington, as the template for what should occur in the future. Dehghani hinted that Iran is more concerned about the danger of rising Sunni extremist power in Afghanistan than it is with Obama's intention to increase US troop strength there.

He said nothing about US troops in Afghanistan except that they were suffering more casualties than those in Iraq. Instead, Dehghani made it clear Iran opposes peace negotiations with the Taliban, as proposed by Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

US support for a "dialogue" with the Taliban, he said, "would be a great mistake".

Europeans and Arab states may be supporting an accommodation with the Taliban, said Dehghani, but the "the real policymakers in the US are not". He suggested that such an accommodation "cannot be supported by the US public".

Dehghani thus implied that Iran and the United States both oppose the same enemy - Sunni extremism - in Afghanistan, providing an objective basis for a broader regional accord.

Perhaps the most politically sensitive issue for both sides in any broad US-Iran negotiations, apart from Iran's nuclear program, would be Iran's relations with Hezbollah and other anti-Israel organizations.

A secret May 2003 Iranian proposal offered to support the Saudi-sponsored Arab League plan for a peace settlement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which would result in Iranian recognition of Israel if the plan were carried to completion. But, as opponents of engagement with Iran have noted, the US State Department's Near East Bureau doubted that the proposal represented anything more than the position of the Mohammad Khatami administration's reformist faction, which they believed was too weak to carry out such an agreement.

It was conservative editor and political strategist Amir Mohebbian, a long-time supporter of Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who suggested in an interview that a US-Iran accord could "help the United States solve the Israel-Palestinian issue".

Cutting through Iranian propaganda on Israel aimed largely at appealing to Arab populations across the region, Mohebbian said Iranian policy toward Israel has to be viewed as a two-level operation. "As a slogan," he told IPS, "Iran says we can't accept the reality of Israel, but we have slogans and we have action. There is a difference between the two."

According to the Foreign Ministry's top official on US affairs, Ali Akbar Rezaie, the main obstacle to a broad US-Iran agreement is not conflicts over objective interests, but US concern with Iran's status as a "great power in this region".

"The only way for the United States to reverse this vicious circle is to agree to co-exist with this greater status of Iran," said Rezaie. "Sooner or later they will have to recognize this."

Gareth Porter, an investigative journalist and historian specializing in US national security policy, has just completed a 12-day visit to Tehran to find out how Iranian officials, analysts and political figures view possible negotiations between the Obama administration and Iran.