Absent a grand bargain with Iran, talks between U.S. and Iranian ambassadors in Baghdad are just going through the motion
As I wrote on TIME.com last week, Bush is in no position to bring the Iraq war to a satisfactory conclusion; the U.S. is treading water in Iraq lacking both any reason to believe the current balance of forces there will allow the attainment of U.S. goals, and any leverage capable of altering that balance of power. The Democrats, for their part, are posturing, demanding an immediate withdrawal as only a party of opposition on the campaign trail could do:
By invading Iraq, the U.S. irreversibly altered the balance of power throughout the Middle East; now, Iraq cannot be treated as a policy decision in isolation from the full spectrum of U.S. interests throughout the region — all of which will be calamitously weakened if the U.S. were to precipitously retreat. While the congressional discussion focused on the failure to achieve consensus among Iraq politicians, it may be that the absence of a consensus on Iraq between the U.S. and Iraq’s neighbors is even more dangerous. Given the weakness of the central government in Iraq, stability there is unlikely without an agreement among Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey and Iran over managing the political contest there. The most powerful stakeholder among them is Iran, which has close ties to the dominant political parties returned by the Iraqi electorate. And as long as Iran believes the U.S. is pursuing a policy of regime-change in Tehran, it has little incentive to help out Washington.
The latter point, really is the key to understanding the current quagmire. The idea of reaching out to Iran has become conventional wisdom in Washington diplomatic circles since the Iraq Study Group report, but it has only been grasped in a facile bound-to-fail sense. So Ambassador Crocker testified that he had talked to Iran on a number of occasions about ending their subversive activities, but to no avail. And this is largely accepted by the liberal hawk camp, while the neocons say told you so.
But if the U.S. is serious about resolving differences with Iran, the agenda of talks would have to be infinitely wider than “subversion” in Iran. Only talks that address and find a mechanism for settling or managing the fundamental strategic conflicts between Washington and Tehran — from U.S. regime-change policies to Iran’s nuclear program and regional activities — can change the course of the relationship. Iran has previously sought such talks with the Bush Administration, but has been rebuffed. As former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben Ami argues, Iran’s regime has proven itself to be pragmatic, and “the grand bargain remains the only way out of the impasse.”
Ben Ami also notes that “Iran’s growing regional influence does not stem from its military expenditures, which are far lwoer than most of its enemies, but from its challenge to Israel and America and its astute use of soft power.” He urges the U.S. and Israel to consider a diplomatic approach based on mutual recognition with Tehran.
The Iranians believe the good faith they showed in Afghanistan has been met with an escalating of hostility from the U.S. side. The idea that they’ll help out the U.S. in Iraq with no quid-pro-quo is hopelessly naive, or worse, cynical (i.e. going through the motions to placate the Iraqi government).
Indeed, last week’s testimony by Petraeus and Crocker on Iraq coincided with a “rollout” of a Cheney-neocon campaign to stampede Americans to war with Iran. The idea that Iran would cooperate with the U.S. — as it did in Afghanistan — while knowing full well that the Administration is considering attacking Iran, is absurd. The Iranians certainly have a long-term interest in a stable, democratic Iraq, even one in which their Shiite allies do more to accomodate Sunni interests. But as long as they’re facing the threat of being bombed, or even a general U.S. policy of seeking the overthrow of their regime, they have no incentive to cooperate, and plenty of incentive to do whatever they can to keep the U.S. off balance and vulnerable in Iraq.
Moreover, the Iranians see the recent U.S. shift away from the Iraqi government and towards Sunni insurgent groups in Anbar as evidence of a U.S. agenda which now explicitly cites “containing Iran” as the strategic purpose of staying in Iraq. Still, if the U.S. is planning an attack, the Iranians need the U.S. to remain in Iraq.
After all, when Iran retaliates for whatever Bush throws at them, the Iranians are likely to target U.S. forces in Iraq, cutting off their supply lines in Baghdad and targeting them via guerrilla forces in Iraq and medium range rocket attacks. Iran, for purposes of its asymmetrical response to any attack by the U.S. needs plenty of Americans within reach of its capabilities.
And its own survival is a far greater concern for the Iranian regime than the future of Iraq.
There lies the rub: The U.S. cannot stabilize Iraq without cooperation from Iran; the price of such cooperation is normalizing relations with the Tehran regime; the Bush Administration has no intention of doing that, clinging instead to fantasies of regime-change; Iraq remains a nightmare.
Actually, it gets a lot worse. If the U.S. is stupid enough to imagine that a military attack will diminish the threat from Iran, the situation in Iraq will likely get a whole lot worse than it is right now. President Bush made no bones about the fact that Iraq is a mess he plans to hand off to his successor. But if he opts to go out in a blaze of, uh, “glory” by bombing Iran, the mess he leaves in the lap of the next president will have metastasized considerably.