But to a critic of the hard-liners, University of Michigan Middle East
historian Juan Cole, the message was clear. "It's a sign of desperation
and a recognition that (the administration) needs Iranian goodwill to
get out of Iraq," he told IPS. "To the extent you can have a soft
landing in Iraq, the Iranians have to be involved."
Realists Tighten Grip as Talks
Open with Iran
Inter Press News, 2 Dec. 2005
a new indication that the balance of power within the administration of
President George W. Bush has tilted strongly in favour of the realists,
Washington's influential ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, has
disclosed that Bush has authorised him to open direct talks with Iran
about stabilising Iraq.
WASHINGTON, Nov 28 (IPS) - The
announcement, which came in an interview with Newsweek magazine, marks
a major change in policy. The two countries have not held direct talks
since mid-May 2003, shortly after the U.S. ouster of Iraqi President
Saddam Hussein, when the influence of neo-conservatives was at its
At that time, the administration charged that al Qaeda
attacks carried out in Saudi Arabia had been coordinated from Iranian
territory. It promptly broke off an ongoing diplomatic dialogue with
Iran in Geneva that was led by Khalilzad himself and dealt primarily
with Afghanistan and Iraq.
"I've been authorised by the
president to engage the Iranians as I engaged them in Afghanistan
directly," Khalilzad told Newsweek. "There will be meetings, and that's
also a departure and an adjustment (to U.S. policy)," he added.
decision to reopen direct talks with Iran, which has not yet reacted to
Khalilzad's announcement, provoked a heated intra-administration debate
earlier this fall about engaging Iran more deeply, particularly in
light of U.S. concerns -- and threats -- concerning Tehran's nuclear
Some hard-liners, including neo-conservatives
associated with the Committee on the Present Danger, have urged the
administration to open an interest section in Tehran to gain more
direct access to and intelligence about opposition groups. They argue
that with sufficient U.S. support, these groups could subvert the
regime in much the same way that U.S. support for Solidarity in Poland
allegedly helped create the conditions for the end of Communist rule
But others have warned against any steps that could be
seen as granting the regime international legitimacy would be a
mistake, particularly in light of the hard-line rhetoric of the
country's controversial new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
the one hand, I think it's a good idea to maintain back-channel
contacts with adversaries," says Raymond Tanter, a former National
Security Council staffer whose Iran Policy Committee has called for
Washington to deploy the Iraq-based Mujahadin-e Khalq, which is listed
as a "terrorist" group by the State Department, against Tehran.
the other hand, when you go public after Ahmadinejad says he wants to
wipe Israel off the map, it seems to reward Iranian belligerence. I
don't know why it's being done," he says.
But to a critic of
the hard-liners, University of Michigan Middle East historian Juan
Cole, the message was clear. "It's a sign of desperation and a
recognition that (the administration) needs Iranian goodwill to get out
of Iraq," he told IPS. "To the extent you can have a soft landing in
Iraq, the Iranians have to be involved."
depicted the decision as part of a more general strategy, long urged by
realists such as Bush Sr.'s national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft,
and some Democrats, including the party's ranking foreign policy
spokesman, Sen. Joseph Biden, to enlist the cooperation of Baghdad's
neighbours in stabilising Iraq sufficiently to permit a substantial
drawdown of U.S. troops.
That goal has become far more urgent
in the past month as public support for the U.S. presence in Iraq has
plummeted, as has confidence in Bush's performance there and in the
general "war on terror".
As Bush's poll numbers have dropped
to levels not seen since the Richard Nixon administration in the early
1970s, Democrats have become more aggressive in urging a major policy
shift toward realism, while Republicans have grown restive. The White
House was badly shaken earlier this month when a majority of Senate
Republicans voted with Democrats to require the administration to
submit regular reports on prospects for withdrawing substantial numbers
of troops in 2006 and progress in training Iraqi troops to take their
Even if the administration has been slow -- at least
rhetorically -- to react to the erosion of public support, the
Pentagon, and particularly senior military officers who have been
talking up the necessity of a substantial withdrawal in 2006 since last
summer, has seen the writing on the wall for some time.
to a number of published reports, the Pentagon has prepared plans to
begin withdrawing large numbers of the nearly 160,000 U.S. troops
currently deployed in Iraq to about 140,000 soon after next month's
elections, to about 115,000 by next July and around 100,00 or less by
next November's mid-term Congressional elections.
hopes are based not only on the military's ability to train and equip
tens of thousands of members of Iraq's armed forces and police, but
also on a political strategy to both reduce the strength and virulence
of the largely Sunni insurgency. At the same time, it is key to ensure
that Shiite groups, especially the Supreme Council for Islamic
Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), that are most closely tied to Tehran, are
prepared to go along with any measures that may be needed to pacify the
It is in this light that the intensified diplomacy
within the region of the past several weeks should be seen --
particularly last week's Arab League meeting in Cairo where both Sunni
and Shiite Iraqi parties, as well as the predominantly Sunni Arab
governments that make up the League, joined together to call for
reconciliation and a withdrawal of non-Arab troops. The fact that Iraqi
President Jalal Talabani, who has long been close to Iran, flew
immediately to Tehran after the meeting did not go unnoticed.
was it missed here that, two weeks after Secretary of State Rice
publicly raised the possibility of direct talks with Iran, Deputy Prime
Minister Ahmad Chalabi, a long-time friend of Khalilzad who had fallen
out of favour in Washington 18 months ago amid charges that he was
working with Iranian intelligence, held high-level talks in Tehran just
before arriving here in early November for the first time in two years.
While Chalabi was received rapturously by hard-line
neo-conservatives at the American Enterprise Institute, who did so much
to champion his efforts to bring U.S. troops to Iraq, it now appears
that his official reception here by senior administration officials,
including Rice, national security adviser Stephen Hadley, and Vice
President Dick Cheney, was linked to his perceived usefulness in
extricating those troops from a political quagmire -- and, more
specifically, gaining Tehran's cooperation in doing so.
"Perhaps that's why he was given such a good reception," noted Cole.
growing reliance on and support for regional diplomacy marks a serious
setback to neo-conservatives who, long before the Iraq war, had
championed the unilateral imposition of a Pax Americana in the Middle
East that would put an end to what in their view constituted the chief
threats to Israel's security -- Arab nationalism and Iranian theocracy.
Now, two and a half years after invading Iraq to put that peace
into place, the administration finds itself seeking the support of both
forces, just as the realists had warned. (FIN/2005)