I have just come by a lucid, excellent analysis of the recent “formal negotiations” between Iran and the U.S. which took place in Baghdad written by Iran expert and Columbia University/School of International and Public Affairs scholar Gary Sick.
I reprint this analysis with permission, as it is not currently available on the web:
US-Iran Talks, 3 June 2007
by Gary Sick
On Monday [May 28], the United States and Iran sat down together in the office of the Iraqi prime minister in Baghdad to discuss mutual concerns about Iraqi security. It marked a turning point in the hostile but impersonal relations between the two countries that many had feared would turn to war. That has not happened. In case there was any doubt about it, Condoleezza Rice said on Friday that “The president of the United States has made it clear that we are on a course that is a diplomatic course,” and she refused to speculate on a military option. Skepticism is still in order, but it is evident that something is happening in US policy. Here is my own take in the form of a Q & A:
Q — Is this meeting really a big deal?
A — It is a big deal. Iran and the United States have not met face-to-face in a formally acknowledged bilateral meeting of substance (even in the presence of a mediator) since before the hostage crisis in November 1979.
The respective domestic policies and political sensitivities of both countries have conspired — the word is deliberate and accurate — to prevent such a meeting for nearly 28 years.
Q — Then why now?
A — The decision-making process in both Washington and Tehran is extremely murky, and one is reduced to reading tea leaves to divine meaning and purpose in either capital. But in my view, the imminent dangers of the Iraq crisis have persuaded both countries to reject the advice of their respective hardline factions, at least for the moment, since neither Iran nor the United States can expect to construct a coherent policy in Iraq and the Persian Gulf region without some measure of cooperation from the other.
Q — Aren’t their objectives too far apart to permit meaningful negotiations?
A — Actually, as US Ambassador Ryan Crocker and others noted after the meeting in Baghdad, the two sides started in almost perfect agreement about their mutual objectives. Both sides would like to see Iraq remain a single political entity, with central authority in the hands of a freely elected government, and with no sectarian/civil war.
That would permit the US to declare a victory of democracy-building and would likely insure Iran of a relatively sympathetic Shia-dominated government and relative quiet on their western border. The big questions are tactical — what does each party do to get to that outcome? — and that is the essence of negotiation.
Q — Won’t this be sabotaged by hardliners on either side who are opposed to any kind of reconciliation between the US and Iran?
A — They are trying and will continue to try. Thus far, and quite surprising to me, the political leadership in Washington and Tehran, who despise and distrust each other, have stuck to their guns even as they showed a lot of defensiveness in justifying their decision to talk. There have been no shortage of pretexts for a breakdown.
In the days leading up to the talks in Baghdad, Iran arrested a number of Iranian-American scholars and the US introduced the largest naval armada in recent history into the Persian Gulf for rather provocative exercises. The United States continued to hold five Iranian Revolutionary Guards who were arrested in Irbil in January and have been held incommunicado ever since on charges of espionage. Iran claimed that the US had sent agents into Iran to foment dissent among separatist movements from the Turkish to the Pakistani borders.
Yet both sides simply continued with the talks.
Q — Are both sides willing to make the kind of domestically unpopular political decisions and tradeoffs that would be required for any kind of real progress?
A — I’m not sure that either the Iranians or the American leadership are sure of the answer. It depends on what the other side has to offer. I suspect that the Bush administration has chosen to ignore all of its past rejections of bilateral talks with Iran because it is convinced that no orderly withdrawal of US forces in Iraq is possible without some measure of Iranian cooperation.
Similarly, Iran must think that some measure of cooperation with the Great Satan is required — despite the howls of anguish from their ultra-conservative base — if order is to be preserved in Iraq as the US occupation begins to wind down.
Q — This doesn’t sound like George Bush. What makes you think he has changed his stripes?
A — I suppose that whatever change has occurred is strictly due to necessity, not choice. As Peggy Noonan puts it with incomparable brevity, speaking of Bush and his advisers in the Wall Street Journal, “Desperate straits have left them liberated” from their conservative base. Remember, we are talking four years after the invasion of Iraq: a lot of the enthusiasm for foreign adventures has cooled.
As to Bush’s personal role in all this, just look at the people he has lately nominated for all the major posts in his administration who are major players on this issue: Josh Bolten as White House chief of staff, Bob Gates at Defense, General Petraeus in Iraq, Adm. Fallon as Centcom, Ryan Crocker as ambassador in Baghdad.
Whatever their personal differences and backgrounds, these are not ideologues, and several of them have expressed forcefully and publicly their lack of interest in an expanded war and/or their interest in engaging Iran diplomatically.
Bush could not have been unaware of the political pedigrees of all these recent appointees, and he must have had more ideological candidates to choose from — did Dick Cheney have nothing to do with the selection process? A few days ago, in response to charges that the “crazies” might still choose to go to war, Condoleezza Rice said (with perhaps just the slightest touch of exaggeration?) “That policy [the diplomatic course] is supported by all of the members of the cabinet, and by the vice president of the United States.”
We don’t have to accept that as revealed truth, but however he got to this point, Bush now openly talks about his “Plan B-H” referring to the Baker Hamilton report — something that was unthinkable just a few months ago.
Q — Can you attach a timeline to this change? If you’re right about a fundamental shift, when did it happen?
A — The Bush administration does not share its innermost deliberations with me or any outsider, so one has to judge on the basis of external behavior. On April 11 undersecretary of state Nicholas Burns gave a speech at the Kennedy School at Harvard.
Burns is a cautious diplomat who protects his flanks and never gets out ahead of the action. In that speech, referring to his congressional testimony a few days earlier, Burns said that “diplomacy is our best course of action in blocking and containing the Iranian regime; that a military confrontation with Iran is not desirable, nor is it inevitable if we continue our skilled diplomatic course and have the patience to see it play out over the mid- to long-term. I am confident that we can avoid a conflict and see our strategy succeed.” I take that as evidence that the internal battle was over by the end of March and that Cheney and those around him had lost, at least for the moment.
Q — You paint a very rosy scenario. Does this mean that the path of US-Iran relations will be smooth from here out?
A — I am very conscious of the fact that political analysts earn their keep by being cynical and negative. They can tell you fifty reasons why something desirable will not happen — then, if it happens, give you an instant fifty reasons why it was inevitable all along. I don’t want to lose my good standing in the fraternity by being too positive, so let me toss in a few negatives.
Although the hardliners in Iran and the US seem to have been outflanked for the moment, they are still there and they are very persistent and powerful.
According to blogger Steve Clemons, “The person in the Bush administration who most wants a hot conflict with Iran is Vice President Cheney. The person in Iran who most wants a conflict is Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Quds Force would be big winners in a conflict as well — as the political support that both have inside Iran has been flagging.
“Multiple sources have reported that a senior aide on Vice President Cheney’s national security team has been meeting with policy hands of the American Enterprise Institute, one other think tank, and more than one national security consulting house and explicitly stating that Vice President Cheney does not support President Bush’s tack towards Condoleezza Rice’s diplomatic efforts and fears that the President is taking diplomacy with Iran too seriously.”
Helene Cooper, in Saturday’s New York Times, identifies the individual as David Wurmser, the principal deputy assistant to Mr. Cheney for national security affairs.
In Tehran, the security services are arresting every American scholar or journalist who is working in Iran or simply visiting a relative and tossing them into the dungeons of Evin prison, at least in part as an effort to pressure the US to release the five Iranians who have disappeared into the secret American dungeons in Iraq.
In the past weeks we have had unprecedented shows of military force, ugly demonstrations of individual persecution, reports of US subversive actions inside Iran, and capture of 15 British sailors and marines in the Persian Gulf. Both sides are being creative and insidious.
So fasten your seat belts. This ride has just begun.
— Gary Sick
Sick’s material is important to ponder and digest. It’s not naive and full of wistful thinking about what might be doable in ideal circumstances between Iran and the U.S., but it does give us insight into the possible and practical, given the enormous mistrust between both sides.
I think he lays out the probabilities compellingly — and I agree with him that what Ryan Crocker and those behind him like Nick Burns, Negroponte, and Rice achieved in Baghdad is good news — though the American and Iranian efforts to lay new track in the relationship is fragile and subject to potential serious sabotage by stakeholders in both governments.
— Steve Clemons
Update: This is a well-done interview on broad Iran issues that Columbia Magazine writer Paul Hond did with Gary Sick a few months ago. Well worth review.
— Steve Clemons