Tuesday, March 21, 2006

US/Iran Talks Unwise

Amir Taheri, New York Post:
Barring a last-minute hitch, Iran and the United States are expected to begin talks on what they have both called "measures to benefit the Iraqi people." The euphemism is unlikely to deceive anyone. What Tehran and Washington really want is to find out each other's true intentions in Iraq.

Both powers have benefited from the demise of the Ba'athist regime. The United States eliminated an enemy that it had wounded but not killed in 1991. With Iraq likely to have a pluralist regime in which Shiites are a majority, Iran may no longer face a coalition of Sunni Arab regimes determined to challenge it in the region.

But the two powers have diametrically opposed visions when it comes to the future of Iraq - indeed, of the entire Middle East. The United States wants a democratic and pro-West Iraq with an open, market-based economy. In his better moments, President Bush has even spoken of turning Iraq into a model for the entire Arab world, indeed for all Muslim countries. That, of course, is in direct competition with Iran - which claims that its own system is the ideal one for all Muslims.

Iran wants an Iraqi regime that adopts at least some aspects of Khomeinism. The Tehran leadership also worries that the emergence of a Shiite-dominated democracy next door may well inspire a democratic revolution in Iran. Plus, with the center of Shiite theological authority clearly shifting to Najaf in Iraq, Iran's rulers may risk losing the religious card that they have played for the past 27 years.

The crucial question in regional politics now is whether Iraq, and beyond it the Middle East, will be reshaped the way America hopes, or remolded as Iran's Khomeinist leaders have dreamed of since 1979.

If the promised talks materialize, what would Iran actually bring to the table? READ MORE

The U.S. invitation to the talks has already scored a point for Tehran. It did nothing to liberate Iraq from Saddam Hussein, yet this invitation bestows on it a stature that only a liberating power would normally have.

Iran has scored yet another point by positioning itself as a power speaking for the Iraqi people. The leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, Abdul-Aziz Hakim, has helped Iran's maneuver by issuing a verbal "invitation" to enter the talks almost as a protector of the people of Iraq. The fact that Hakim and his party have been supported by Iran for more than a quarter of a century does not diminish the importance of that move.

The Iranian strategy is clear. Foreign Minister Manuchehr Motakki has said that Iran's chief priority is to discuss the withdrawal of Coalition forces from Iraq. Thus, when the Americans and their allies start to leave, as they are certain to do later this year, Iran would be able to pretend that it was its efforts that ended "the occupation."

Worse, Iran has larger ambitions in Iraq. It sees the nation as a corridor through which it can communicate with Syria and Lebanon, which it considers as part of its broader glacis. In fact, if Tehran's influence is established in Iraq as it is in Syria and Lebanon, Iran would be able to project power in the Levant for the first time since the early 7th century.

It is no accident that scholars in Tehran have just rediscovered agreements that Iran signed with the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century. Known as the Erzerum treaties, these gave Iran a right of oversight over Iraq's principal Shiite centers of Najaf, Karbala and Kazemayn. They also enabled Iran to take "appropriate action" (i.e., military intervention) if it felt that its security, or the access of Iranian pilgrims to "holy places," was threatened by the presence of foreign hostile forces in southern Iraq.

If applied today, those agreements could lead to the emergence of an Iranian administration in the "holy cities" and an Iranian veto on key aspects of Iraq's foreign policy. And Tehran has already used those 19th-century accords to persuade the new Iraqi government to sign an agreement under which more than 600,000 Iranian pilgrims a year will be able to visit Iraq with little control from the Iraqi authorities.

And now Tehran is dusting off a second set of documents - the Algiers Accords, negotiated and signed in Algiers, Geneva, Tehran and Baghdad between 1975 and 1976. These agreements, signed by Saddam Hussein as a tactical ploy to end Iranian support for the Kurds in the 1970s, give Iran and Iraq shared sovereignty over the Shatt al-Arab estuary, which constitutes Iraq's principal outlet to the open seas. If fully implemented, that would give Iran a chokehold on Iraq's foreign trade, including oil exports.

Tehran does not want the United States to fail utterly in Iraq. It wants the Americans to eliminate all possibility of a new Sunni-dominated regime in Baghdad. But it also wants the Americans to pay the highest possible cost, both in blood and treasure.

It is a mystery why Washington wants to give Tehran a place at the high table in Iraq. The Islamic Republic will certainly continue doing whatever it can to make life difficult for the Coalition. The supply of new and more lethal explosives smuggled into Iraq from Iran is unlikely to dry up. Nor is Tehran likely to end the training programs launched by its Lebanese Hezbollah clients for Iraqi militants.

The decision to involve Iran in Iraqi affairs is also likely to anger America's regional allies, who have never discounted the possibility of an Irano-American deal that would leave them in the lurch. The Arab states will also worry about Iraq's Arab identity being diluted as a result of Iranian intervention.

The U.S. decision here may be even worse than a mistake; it may be unnecessary. And, as Talleyrand noted almost 200 years ago, in politics doing something that is not necessary is worse than making a mistake.

Iranian author and journalist Amir Taheri is a member of Benador Associates.