US-Iranian Iraq Dialogue Fails Before Starting
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Little explanation – or even speculation – has been forthcoming for the abrupt decision by US ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad to call off the Baghdad talks he was due to lead for Washington with an Iranian delegation on Saturday, April 8.
Had it taken place, this would have been the first meaningful diplomatic encounter between the US and the Islamic Republic in 25 years.
All Khalilzad said diplomatically: “We do not want to give the impression that the United States is sitting with Iran to decide about the Iraqi government. The Iraqis will decide that.”
He knows as well as anyone that an Iraqi government is nowhere near realization – and exactly why it is stalled four months after Iraq’s general election: the insurmountable hurdle of the Shiite prime minister Ibrahim Jaafari’s refusal to step aside as stipulated by Kurdish and Sunni politicians.
Jaafari egged on by Tehran remains immovable.
This would partly explain why the Americans more or less stood the Iranians up. Most delegation members had arrived from Tehran by Saturday, barring the three leaders. They were held back as an Iranian exercise in mystification, to conceal their identity until the last minute and then spring them as a surprise.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly 249 reported on April 7 Tehran had confronted Washington last week with an earlier surprise: a demand to put the nominee for the next Iraqi prime minister at the top of the Baghdad agenda. 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 pushing the American side into a corner where nothing could be settled without calling on Tehran for help.
The Bush administration was meant thereby to swallow a new reality – diplomatically if not publicly – that Iran’s leverage in Baghdad now rivaled that of America’s military and political leadership, boosted by its political and intelligence penetration of Iraq.
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 flexed its muscles in Baghdad by stiffening 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 took to accomplish this objective.
On April 2, Washington tried to cut through this Gordian knot with the surprise joint arrival in Baghdad of US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and UK foreign secretary Jack Straw. But 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 at first bit the bullet and settled for the second option. But Khalilzad then backed away, realizing that the Iranians were simply using the talks to maneuver for high ground against the United States and not seeking to ease the Iraqi crisis.
debkafile‘s Iranian sources claimed that it was Tehran which stood Washington up over the talks – not the Americans. At the same time, finding out who pulled the rug is less important than the fact that a rare chance to bring the United States and Iran together for dialogue on a cardinal issue has slipped away in the foreseeable future.