Monday, December 11, 2006

Sooner or Later, You Have To Talk

Juan Cole has an editorial in the San Jose Mercury-News about why Pres. Bush should heed the Iraq Study Group's recommendation that the U.S. start a conversation with Syria and Iran about finding a solution to the Iraq catastrophe.

Here is some of what Prof. Cole has to say (also linked from Informed Comment):

The neo-conservatives had envisaged the invasion of Iraq as a first step toward the overthrow of the governments of Syria and Iran. In 2003, the hawks at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., joked that everyone wanted to go to Iraq, but real men wanted to go to Iran. Others hoped that the fall of the Baath Party in Baghdad would fatally weaken the rival Baath regime in Damascus, headed by the lanky former ophthalmologist, Bashar al-Assad. For Washington now to seek a rapprochement with these governments will require not only engagement but also a good deal of fence-mending.

At the news conference introducing the study group's report on Wednesday, Baker was frank about the prospects. He admitted that Iran might not be eager to enter talks with the United States. The U.S. ambassador in Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, had attempted to initiate talks with Iran in the spring of 2006, but they faltered when the Iranians withdrew. Washington had offered only a single track for the talks, with sole focus on Iraq, while the Iranians wanted to put all outstanding bilateral issues, including Iran's nuclear energy research program, on the table.

In contrast, Baker said of Syria, "There is a strong indication they would be in a position to help us and might want to help us." The initial response from Syria was in fact positive. Syria's vice president said Wednesday that both his country and its ally Iran are prepared to help. Referring to his nation and Iran, Syrian Vice President Farouq al-Sharaa said, "The two countries are Iraq's neighbors, and without getting them involved it will not be easy to find a solution to the predicament in Iraq." He added, speaking to a conference in Damascus, "We are not so arrogant to say that Syria and Iran can solve Iraq's problem . . . The entire international community may not be able to solve it. But let them (the Americans) be a little bit modest and accept whoever has the capability to help."
Washington is at odds with Damascus not only over Iraq, but also on two other fronts. Syria is a major ally of Lebanon's militant Shiite party, Hezbollah, and stands accused of having allowed Iran to provide the latter with missiles and other weaponry for use against Israel. It has also been accused of complicity in a string of assassinations against anti-Syrian politicians in Lebanon, most notably former prime minister Rafiq Hariri. Syria also supports the Palestinians in their dispute with Israel.

Baker, who co-chaired the Iraq Study Group (ISG), argued that such disputes should not forestall "tough" negotiations with Syria and Iran, noting that the United States kept talking to the Soviet Union even during the darkest days of the Cold War. Moreover, the group's report is not advocating that the United States capitulate on any of these major outstanding issues. In fact, the Baker-Hamilton commission insists that the investigation of Hariri's assassination must be vigorously pursued.

What would Syria get out of such cooperation? As the ISG report notes, it is not in Syria's interest for Iraq to collapse into warring sectarian and ethnic factions. Syria, a country of 19 million, is itself an ethnic mosaic, with 2 million Kurds, and significant Alawi Shiite and Christian populations, despite a Sunni majority. The secular, Arab nationalist Baath government is run largely by Alawis, who adhere to a form of folk Shiism. The main challengers to the regime have been fundamentalist Sunni organizations of a sort now establishing themselves in western and northern Iraq. A breakup of Iraq would potentially roil Syria's ethnic groups as well.
The involvement of Iran in a regional conference and in negotiations on Iraq is a more difficult proposition on all sides. The 1979 revolution that overthrew the shah and created the Islamic Republic of Iran was directed in part against the United States, which had long supported the shah. And the 1980 hostage-taking at the U.S. embassy in Tehran remains a sore point for both countries.

It is not just a matter of living in the past. Washington and its allies view Iran's civilian nuclear energy research program with profound alarm. Although there is no evidence that Iran has a weapons program, it is feared that Iran's mastery of uranium enrichment for energy purposes will give it expertise that could be applied to making a nuclear weapon. Egypt and Saudi Arabia fear this possibility as much as Germany and Israel. The Bush administration has in the past said that Iran's suspension of enrichment is a prerequisite for talks between the two countries, a precondition that Iran has consistently rejected.

Relations have also been worsened by the election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose cartoonish antics and outlandish statements denying the Holocaust and calling for the collapse of the ``Zionist regime over Jerusalem,'' have raised alarms among Americans about his intentions. In the Iranian system, however, the president is a relatively powerless figure. The Supreme Jurisprudent, Ali Khamenei, holds most power in his hands, and he is the commander in chief of the armed forces.

The rise of Iranian power in the Middle East -- and its ability to draw on the ``soft power'' of Shiite allies in Lebanon, Iraq, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Syria -- has created a new cold war in the region. Ranged against Iran are Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel. These strong American allies are lobbying the United States against entering into talks with Iran, and fear that American concessions to Tehran could backfire and make the regime more dangerous to them. They worry that Iran will misinterpret an American approach as a green light to develop nuclear weapons.

Still, Shiite Iran has substantial influence with Iraqi Shiites and might be able to help convince Shiite militia leaders in Iraq to cease death squad activity against Sunni Arab populations. Iran has offered Iraq $1 billion in foreign aid, as well as port and oil refinery facilities, and plans to build an airport near the holy city of Najaf, which would bring billions of dollars in pilgrimage trade to Iraq. Clearly, Iran is in a position to pressure Iraqi Shiite elites to compromise, should it decide to play that role.

Iran would certainly suffer from a breakup of Iraq. It has a large Kurdish population that is already restive. The emergence of an independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq might roil Iranian Kurdistan. Iran's Kurds are largely Sunni and chafe under the rule of the ayatollahs. The Iranians fear, moreover, that Iraqi violence might spill over the border.

Whether the Bush administration will agree to speak with Syria and Iran is as yet unknown. But in his response to the study group's report, the president did not sound encouraging, reiterating preconditions for talks that neither Iran nor Syria were likely to accept: Iran must abandon its nuclear program, and Syria must end its support for Hezbollah.

"If they want to sit down at the table with the United States, it's easy -- just make some decisions that will lead to peace, not conflict,'' Bush said.

Even if the administration eventually does talk with Syria and Iran, there is no guarantee that it will do any good. Despite frequent attempts to place blame for the situation in Iraq on Damascus and Tehran, there is no good evidence that they are significant contributors to the unrest. Most of the violence is being committed by Iraqi Sunnis; a part of it is committed by the Shiite Mahdi Army. The disadvantage here is that Syria and Iran may be relatively powerless in weighing in with the Sunni Arab guerrillas.

The major significance of the Baker-Hamilton commission's report is its abandonment of a neo-conservative foreign policy. Arrogant unilateralism, going to war virtually alone, and attempting to occupy a major Arab oil country militarily have produced an enormous crisis for the United States in the region. For a long time after the 2003 invasion, Americans were in denial about how bad Iraq was becoming and how few options there were. At least now the full contours of a realistic solution are becoming clear. Childish refusals to talk to enemies are falling by the wayside.

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