As conditions in Iraq become worse and the country approaches a state of civil war and disintegration, all eyes are turning increasingly toward the regional powers for help in calming the crisis. Among those that come to mind immediately are two of Iraq's most significant neighbors, Syria and Iran .While the importance of Syria's influence in Iraq is not completely clear, many, including the Baker-Hamilton study group on Iraq, believe that Iran must seriously be taken into account by the allies if they are to reach a solution for the deepening crisis.
There are of course some observers who dispute the potential significance of Iran's role in Iraq. They argue that Iran's power and influence there have been somewhat exaggerated. I believe that Iran can and indeed does play a very significant role in Iraq. The key issue, however, is not the exact degree of Iran's influence, but rather the way the United States perceives Iran's role and influence. Equally important is the question whether the two countries are willing to talk with the view of possible cooperation over the future of Iraq.
There are two major obstacles regarding the prospect of direct talks between Iran and the US over Iraq. The first problem concerns Washington's ambivalence over Iran's role in Iraq. This is best demonstrated in conflicting signals coming from US officials regarding the perception of Iran's role in Iraq. The first view sees Iran not as part of the solution in Iraq but, to the contrary, as part of the problem. Not only does this school of thought not seek Iran's involvement in Iraq, but it actually urges Tehran not to interfere. In a joint press conference after his talks with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki at the end of November, US President George W. Bush stated that the best assistance Iran can offer to Iraqis would be to not interfere in their country.
This view, which is shared by a number of other US leaders, is in sharp contrast with the recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton study group on Iraq. Interestingly, there are also conflicting views in Tehran on the issue. Some Iranian leaders look upon cooperation on Iraq between Iran and the US with a great deal of suspicion. They argue that this would merely be a marriage of convenience for Washington, enabling the US to extricate itself from the Iraqi swamp with Iran's help. Not only would this not serve Iran's national interests, but it would be detrimental to Iran.
The moment the US is free of its ties in Iraq, it would turn on Iran with an iron fist, argue the opponents of rapprochement with the US in Iraq. A leading hard-line newspaper close to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad warned Iranian leaders, "not to fall into the trap laid by James Baker to throw a rope for the Great Satan to climb out of Iraq's well.... No sooner would the US be out of Iraq's dungeon than it would turn toward us."
This view is also shared by Iranians who are not hardliners. A reformist newspaper, for example, wrote that the US entanglement in Iraq and Afghanistan has indeed provided Iran with a degree of immunity or a safety margin.
As a clear example of America's deep-rooted hostility toward the Islamic revolution and its ultimate intention to overthrow the Iranian regime, the skeptics point to Washington's current determination to impose sanctions on Iran for its nuclear program, through the UN Security Council. In response to James Baker's recommendations, a leading anti-US Iranian leader asked, "how does Washington expect us to cooperate with it while it calls at the same time for imposing sanctions against us?"
In contrast to these skeptics, there are others who consider the US predicament in Iraq as a unique opportunity for Tehran and Washington to wrap up, in the words of yet another reformist newspaper, "the senseless animosity between the two countries that has only brought destabilization, insecurity and extremism in the region". Whatever the merits of direct Iranian-American talks on Iraq and the prospects for ultimate cooperation between the countries, a great deal of confidence-building must first take place between them.
Any normalization of relations between the two countries not only would greatly improve the situation in Iraq but, more fundamentally, would have a great impact on other major issues. It would undoubtedly soften Iran's stand regarding its nuclear program. It can be realistically argued that Iran's insistence on pursuing its nuclear program is linked to its perception of a threat from the US. It can also be argued that if Iran felt more secure from the US, it might play a far more constructive role in Iraq. To be sure, before addressing the prospect of any dialogue with Washington over Iraq, Tehran must feel that it doesn't need the US predicament in Iraq as a safety net for its very existence.
In short, before there can be any realistic chance of cooperation in Iraq between Iran and the US, a change in American leaders' attitude toward the Islamic regime is a fundamental prerequisite.- Published 7/12/2006 © bitterlemons-international.org