The Iranians Brandish their Whip Hand

The US-Iranian talks on Iraq are scheduled to kick off formally Saturday, April 8, in Baghdad. But, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in the Iraqi capital, the three top officials of the Iranian delegation have not arrived, only their juniors. In fact, US ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, who heads the American team, has not been told who he is about to meet.

Tehran is employing every ruse and stratagem to place the Americans at a disadvantage and show them who holds the whip hand in Iraq.

Washington was confronted this week with Tehran’s insistence on the first item on the agenda being the nomination of the next Iraqi prime minister. This departed sharply from the parameters laid down for the talks by President George W. Bush and Khalilzad. It was a device to give Iran equal say in determining the political situation in Baghdad and squeezing the American side into a corner where nothing can be settled without consulting the Iranian side.

The Bush administration was forced to realistically acknowledge, albeit not publicly, that Iran has acquired equal leverage in Baghdad to US military and political leaders by dint of its political and intelligence penetration of Iraq.

(See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 246 of March 17: Six Iraqi lawmakers are Six Undercover Iranian Brigadiers General and 247 of March 24: The Shiite Mainstream Is Linked to Tehran)

On March 17, when the American-Iranian talks were first announced in Washington, the White House press secretary Scott McClellan emphasized that they would be limited to the situation in Iraq.


The Jaafari impasse deepens


Stephen Hadley, President Bush’s national security adviser said Khalilzad had been authorized to talk to the Iranians about their interference in Iraq, which he said, “is giving comfort and, in some cases, equipment to terrorists that are killing Iraqis and coalition forces. And that is what we have made very clear is unacceptable.”

In Washington, that sounded like a reasonable starting-point for the talks – but not in Tehran.

At the preliminary conversations held near Zurich in the third week of March (DNW 247 of March 24: US-Iran Talks on Iraq Have Begun), the gap between the two positions instead of narrowing widened out to a chasm. Tehran’s negative attitude came to the fore when it stiffened prime minister Ibrahim Jaafari’s resistance to stepping down, thereby derailing all efforts to form the Iraqi unity government and undoing the carefully calibrated steps the Americans had taken to accomplish this objective.

On April 2, Washington tried to cut through this Gordian knot with the dramatic, surprise joint arrival in Baghdad of US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and UK foreign secretary Jack Straw. Jaafari was unmoved by their appeals to step aside. He dismissed the two officials’ visit as ill-timed, counter-productive and “naked intervention.”

DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources report that after this fiasco, the Bush administration’s options boiled down to two: to break off the talks with Iran or to keep them going on Tehran’s terms.

Confronted with the urgency of a government to be installed in Baghdad, the first step in a process that would make a US troop withdrawal possible, the Americans bit the bullet and settled for the second option.

It may therefore be expected that the US-Iranian talks will start Saturday with Ambassador Khalilzad putting forward the name of interim Iraqi vice president Abdel Aboul Mahdi, a leader of SCIRI, as the US-backed candidate for Iraqi prime minister – at least in the initial stage, while the Iranian side will stick to Jaafari as Tehran’s nominee.

The Iranians have since come up with a fresh demand for Iraqi participation in the two-way talks. This is exactly what the American envoy has been trying to avoid. He suspects that the leaders of the three main parties, the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, if co-opted to the conference, will only bring their four-month old stalemate with them.

A last point still at issue is the venue of the talks. The two sides had more or less agreed on the embassy of a third nation in the Green Zone of Baghdad. But which nation that should be is still undecided.

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