The Beginning Of American-Iranian Engagement
March 22, 2007 - No. 14
The Beginning Of American-Iranian Engagement
By Ephraim Kam
On March 10, a one-day conference on the stabilization of Iraq was held in Baghdad. The ambassadorial-level conference included representatives from Iraq itself and all of its neighbors, including Iran and Syria, from the five permanent members of the Security Council, and from several other states. The discussions focused on the question of how to help Iraq deal with the problem of internal violence and reconcile its various ethnic and sectarian groups. Conference participants described the meeting as a positive first step and agreed to set up a working group that will address infiltration from across Iraq’s border, oil, and the problem of refugees. Most importantly, the participants agreed to prepare a follow-on conference that will meet soon, perhaps at the ministerial level, although its precise mandate and timing were not decided.
A particularly noteworthy aspect of the conference was that it provided the setting for the first public meeting in many years in which American and Iranian officials discussed a central political issue. Working-level meetings have taken place in the past, without advance publicity, to discuss discrete matters, such as those connected with American military operations in Afghanistan. This time the meeting was official, it came after prior notification, and it took on added significance with respect to the totality of relations between the two countries. At the same time, the parties insisted on stressing that there were no direct, bilateral contacts between them outside the conference plenary.
The Baghdad meeting between American and Iranian representatives stemmed from the distress of both sides and their interest in moving the situation in Iraq in directions favorable to their interests. The U.S. is caught in a bind because of its involvement in Iraq and the administration is torn between unpalatable alternatives: to stay on and risk even greater domestic and international opprobrium or to withdraw its forces quickly and risk the further destabilization of Iraq and the further undermining of its credibility and stature. Iran, for its part, is under growing pressure on the nuclear issue (including the threat of future military action) and is concerned at the prospect that instability in Iraq might spread into Iran. However, Iran also sees opportunities in the way the situation has developed, with the elimination of Iraq as serious regional power that once blocked and threatened it and the emergence of Shi’ites as a leading force in Iraq.
These considerations led both the United States and Iran to change course and agree to meet in Baghdad. The U.S. administration wants to explore all possibilities to stabilize Iraq in the clear understanding that its military effort there must be complemented by some political effort. In doing so, it can respond to proposals in the U.S. – such as the Baker-Hamilton Report – to engage Iran on this matter. There is another factor. If the administration does eventually decide to carry out a military attack, it wants to be able to demonstrate that it first tried all other means of dealing with the nuclear issue, including engagement with the Iranians. Iran, for its part, wants to exploit any engagement to achieve several objectives: entrenched recognition of its status and influence in Iraq, the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq, and reduced pressure on the nuclear issue in return for help in stabilizing Iraq.
The fact that U.S. and Iranian representatives sat together in Baghdad is important in and of itself. By breaking the ice, it may make possible other meetings in the future. And if the parties can overcome the scars of the past, such meetings may generate their own dynamic. At the same time, real U.S.-Iranian engagement will have to overcome the very formidable obstacles that have hitherto constrained contacts and prevented any understanding or agreement between them. First of all, there is a high level of mutual mistrust. The radical wing of the Iranian regime has consistently opposed any engagement with the administration since it sees a rupture with the United States as one main criterion of revolutionary Islamic authenticity. And in the United States, important elements reject engagement with the Iranian regime, which they see as part of the “axis of evil.” This suspicion is apparently the reason why, even in Baghdad, American and Iranian representatives refrained from any direct bilateral contact.
Secondly, there are serious differences between the U.S. and Iran over the future of Iraq. The administration wants to establish a stable, pro-western regime that will conciliate and involve Sunnis, to prevent the emergence of a Shi’ite bloc linking Iran and Iraqi Shi’ites, to block and balance Iran’s standing and aspirations in the Gulf, and to withdraw U.S. forces in a way that minimizes damage to American standing and credibility. Iran has contradictory goals: to create a stable but weak Iraq in which the Shi’ite element will be tied to Iran and dependent on it, and to accelerate the departure of American forces in a manner that weakens the regional stature of the U.S. The Iranian regime has no reason to help the U.S. rehabilitate its reputation in the region.
Thirdly, if a serious U.S.-Iranian dialogue over Iraq does develop, Iran will almost certainly demand an end to pressure on the nuclear issue in return for help in Iraq. It is difficult to imagine the United States agreeing to such a demand, which would effectively mean acquiescing in Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons. Besides, even if Iran were willing to help stabilize Iran, its influence is ultimately limited. After all, there is little that Iran can do to conciliate Iraqi Sunnis; its ability to subvert the existing order is greater than its ability to contribute to a peaceful new order.
Thus, there is not much room for substantial U.S.-Iranian engagement in the current circumstances. However, the prospects that such engagement could lead to substantial results would improve in one of two possible scenarios. The first is if the U.S. administration decides to withdraw its forces from Iraq, in which case the Iranians would have an interest to engage in order to accelerate that process and take advantage of it in order to entrench their hold on Iraq. The second is if Iran shows some willingness, in response to greater pressure on it, to agree to a package deal on the nuclear issue that would also include some understandings on the question of Iraq.