While Iraq was on every lip in this week’s US midterm election, as soon as it was over, everyone in Washington, the “thumped” US president George W. Bush‘s Republicans and the triumphant Democrats alike, were talking about Iran.
Both were clear on the need to prospect forgotten terrain to dredge up common factors before they can work together on the cardinal foreign policy issue, Iraq, and the exit thereof.
There is less clarity about the way forward. One chance of a consensus lies with the bipartisan Iraq commission chaired by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former Democratic congressman Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.).
The panel’s primary recommendation will be for the United States to open a dialogue on Iraq with Iran and Syria, extending it perhaps to Lebanon and the Palestinians as well. Although former CIA Director Robert M. Gates, Donald Rumsfeld‘s successor as Secretary of Defense, will have been primed for this step as a commission member, it may prove too controversial to jump at.
Voices from the past will be urging the White House to do so and change course.
James Baker, the midwife of George W. Bush’s ascent to the presidency six years ago, will be working up – not only to America’s exit from Iraq, but also to designing a fitting legacy for the second Bush presidency.
Hovering behind the president’s shoulder too is the former secretary of state and eminence grise Henry Kissinger, an old champion of face-to-face diplomacy as the road to detente, especially with enemies. In the early 1970s, the darkest Cold War years, he paid secret visits to the capitals of America’s foes, North Vietnam, the Soviet Union and China, opening doors for Richard Nixon.
Detente again in the air
Should Bush heed their advice, he will be able to call on the services of Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), tagged for the chair of the powerful House Foreign Policy Committee, who is one of the few American politicians in personal contact with Bashar Asad in Damascus. Lantos is a proponent of direct diplomacy – even with North Korea. Another is Nancy Pelosi of California, House speaker-in-waiting, potentially one of the most influential powerhouses in Washington.
She too holds that Tehran, Damascus and Pyongyang must be engaged rather than fought.
In mid-2004, Robert Gates joined another veteran detentist, former national adviser Zbiegniew Brzezinski, in advocating dialogue with Iran. At the time, the White House did not take them up on this line.
In a report, titled Iran: Time for a New Approach, which they submitted as co-chairmen of a task force of the Council on Foreign Relations, Gates and Brzezinski argued that the lack of American engagement with Iran harmed US interests.
“Just as the United States has a constructive relationship with China (and earlier with the Soviet Union), while strongly opposing certain aspects of its international policies,” wrote Brzezinski and Gates, “Washington should approach Iran with a readiness to explore areas of common interests while continuing to contest objectionable policy.”
Conspicuous by their absence from Bush’s first appearance after the midterm debacle – and his announcement of Rumsfeld’s exit – were the president’s closest advisers, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley.
Their absence is not surprising.
This trio and the departing defense secretary were live wires in the Bush administration’s pre-election Iraq, Syria and Middle East policies. If detente is to be the leitmotif of the new bipartisan regime, they may decide to stand aside from White House efforts to seek common ground with Tehran and the newly empowered Democratic leaders.
But even assuming that bipartisanship leads to consensus on engaging Iran, a question still hangs over Tehran’s response – or, more precisely, price.
Where yes is also no – in Tehran
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Iranian sources and experts pose this question and a second one: Can the United States get any further in persuading the ayatollahs to give up their nuclear ambitions by engagement and the promise of good relations than it has so far by hanging over their heads punitive sanctions and other threats?
The answer to the first question is yes.
Tehran will go for dialogue with Washington.
In Tehran, the Bush administration and Republican Party are perceived as being weakened and shaken by the Iraq guerrilla resistance pre-planned by Saddam Hussein – which will not end with his execution – by al Qaeda foreign-fueled terror and by the sectarian strife tearing Iraq apart. The Iranians see good pickings to be had by stepping through a door opened wide in Washington.
The answer to the second questions is no.
Iran will not give up its nuclear program and race for a bomb. It will hang on more firmly than ever. Its negotiators will use dialogue and an accommodation with the Americans as a golden opportunity to accelerate their nuclear program unchecked. The Iranians are past masters at dragging out negotiations while putting their nuclear plans on fast forward.
As for Iraq, which figured so large in the electoral shift of power in Washington from Republicans to Democrats, our Iranian experts surprisingly see enough common ground now for the United States and the Shiite republic to get together on a formula for ending sectarian warfare and winding down the insurgency.
This is because of an unconsidered fact.
Just as Americans are horrified by the appalling daily toll of American military and Iraqi deaths (rising to 200 Wednesday, Nov. 8), so too is Tehran deeply troubled by the swelling number of Iraqi Shiites slaughtered day by day by militia death squads. This daily butchery leaves its mark on internal politics in Tehran and Iran at large. Iranian leaders, just like the heads of the Bush administration, can expect to take a beating from the hideous blood-letting as the center of world Shiite Islam. It cannot go on much longer without bring trouble down on the regime from the powerful Qom clerical establishment. The pretext that America’s back to the wall in Iraq gives Tehran a chance to leap forward with its nuclear development no longer washes.
However, help from Iran will come at a price.
Tehran‘s fee may prove prohibitive
In the secret meetings American and Iranian representatives held in Europe in the course of 2005 and early 2006, the Iranians offered task forces to go into Iraq to extinguish the insurgency. Their condition: Washington must not demur against Iran’s methods of operation. This condition some US Democrats may find hard to swallow.
Interestingly, the Iranian negotiators never demanded the departure of US forces from Iraq, only that they be confined to base.
At present, Iran is the only power in the world in a position to engage – and perhaps even cut a deal with al Qaeda – for lowering the flames of terror in Iraq.
(See last DEBKA-Net-Weekly 276: Have al Qaeda and Iran Joined Forces).
Tehran’s clerics are also singularly well placed for inducing Syria’s Bashar Asad to seal his border with Iraq to the passage of fighters, arms and money.
They are additionally the bosses of Lebanon’s Hizballah which will act on Tehran’s say-so on whether or not to continue its intrigue to overthrow Fouad Siniora‘s government in Beirut.
All in all, the common ground is there for Tehran to take a fresh look at post-election Washington. What remains to be determined is Tehran’s fee for playing ball on the issues causing America most pain. It could be steep, and Washington will have to carefully calculate whether the game is worth the candle.
Iran will stand firm on getting away with its nuclear weapons program. That will be a tough one for the United States. Weighty issue will have to be considered such as whether Iran should intervene in Afghanistan like Iraq. Reactions of the Sunni regimes of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates to the US about-turn may be negative. Tehran will demand a heavy American squeeze on Israel to cede strategic, political and territorial assets in return for de-escalation on the Palestinian front.
The Americans will have to swallow another bitter pill.
The Shiite revolutionaries of Tehran will refuse to face the United States across a negotiating table in the capacity of a junior, regional state vis-a-vis the world’s No. 1 superpower. Now they feel entitled to full parity, especially as they no longer stand alone. Iran will henceforth be engaging the United States with China’s backing, as will be shown in the next article.