Iranian, Arab roles in peace talks
urged By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - Foreign-policy circles in
Washington, including some figures considered
close to the George W Bush administration, have
begun talking privately and in off-the-record
meetings about the need to give Iran as well as
Iraq's Arab neighbors key roles in peace
negotiations, according to Middle East experts.
This new support for Iranian-Arab
participation in negotiations on Iraq parallels
the position reportedly taken privately by US
Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad.
Steven Cook, a Middle East specialist and
fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said
some foreign-policy specialists "close
the administration" have been saying in private
conversations that the US will need to bring Iran
and the Arab states into Iraqi peace negotiations.
Another Middle East expert at a Washington
think-tank, who asked not to be identified, said
arguments for involving the Iranians and Arabs in
an Iraqi peace process had been heard with much
greater frequency and urgency in recent weeks in
closed, off-the-record meetings.
expert said advocates of that option argued that,
given the influence of these neighboring states on
the Shi'ite and Sunni political-military forces in
Iraq, "You have to have something like a 'contact
group' involving regional states to maximize
leverage on the Iraqi parties."
US Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry
called in a New York Times op-ed piece on April 5
for a "Dayton Accords-like summit meeting" (a
reference to the 1995 peace conference ending the
Bosnian war) with US allies and the Arab League to
reach a "political agreement" on Iraq. Kerry did
not mention Iran.
national security adviser to president Jimmy
Carter (1977-81), is the most prominent
foreign-policy figure to call publicly for a
regional peace process. On the Lehrer News Hour
on March 20, Brzezinski suggested getting the
Iraqis to convene a "conference of ... Muslim
neighbors, who are interested in continued
stability in Iraq and in helping to prevent a
civil war from exploding".
In a speech at
a Democratic Party think-tank, the Center for
American Progress, on March 16, Brzezinski said
the stabilization of Iraq was in Iran's interest.
Brzezinski confirmed in an e-mail that there had
also been private discussions about his proposal,
but declined to be more specific.
support in foreign-policy circles for active
Iranian and Arab roles in peace negotiations has
been prompted by the dramatic escalation of
sectarian violence in Iraq last month. That was a
signal to many that the US policy of pressing
militant Shi'ite leaders to be compromising toward
the Sunnis was failing to slow Iraq's descent into
civil war between Sunni and Shi'ite paramilitary
In the wake of worsening sectarian
violence, Khalilzad has also become more anxious
about the US failure to include Iranian and Arab
participation in Iraqi talks on a settlement. In a
March 20 article in Time magazine, Aparisim Ghosh
wrote that those who know Khalilzad "say he is
aware he may be powerless to stop Iraq's
Ghosh quoted a recent visitor
to Khalilzad as saying the ambassador had
complained that he "needs more help from
Washington to apply international pressure on
Iraq's warring parties".
"international pressure" Khalilzad mentioned could
only refer to pressure by Iran on Iraq's militant
Shi'ite leaders and by neighboring Arab states on
the Sunni insurgents.
belief that the Iranians might be willing to help
pressure the Shi'ite parties on a settlement is
supported by the observations of former National
Security Council official Kenneth Pollock on
Iran's policy in Iraq after the US invasion in
2003. Pollack testified before the House Armed
Service Committee last year that Iran told the
militant Shi'ite parties that had been trained in
Iran and strongly opposed the US occupation to
cooperate with US authorities in establishing an
Pollock told the
committee that Iran was motivated by the desire to
avoid "civil war and chaos", which he called
"their greatest fear and first priority".
Opponents of US-Iranian talks, including
National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley and
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, have tried
to block the active involvement of the Iranians in
negotiations on a settlement in Iraq. That issue
may still be unresolved as Washington and Tehran
continue to negotiate proposals on the details of
Khalilzad's desire for the
participation of Iraq's Arab neighbors in such
negotiations is also rejected by those who still
see Iraq as an experiment in bringing democracy to
the Arab world. In an article just published in
The New Republic Online, the Council on Foreign
Relations' Cook argues that the Arab states have
no interest in helping the US succeed in creating
an Arab democratic state in Iraq.
their views about democratic institutions,
however, Iraq's Arab neighbors are far more
concerned about the potentially destabilizing
impacts of Sunni-Shi'ite civil war in Iraq on
their own societies, and the likelihood that it
would allow al-Qaeda to consolidate its bases in
Iraq for training Arab jihadis for later return to
their home countries.
According to an
Associated Press report, the intelligence chiefs
of six Arab states - Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan,
Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates
- and Turkey have held a series of meetings in
recent weeks to discuss plans for dealing with the
impacts on the region of worsening Sunni-Shi'ite
conflict in Iraq.
Saudi Arabia in
particular fears that unchecked sectarian violence
in Iraq will negatively affect its own Shi'ite
minority. The Arab states also fear that it will
contribute to the destabilization of Lebanon,
which has its own long-standing Sunni-Shi'ite
Apart from worries about civil
war in Iraq, the Arab states argue that the
current US policy in Iraq of excluding the Arab
states from negotiations is playing into Iran's
At the Arab League Summit in
Khartoum last month, league chief Amr Moussa said,
"Any solution for the Iraqi problem cannot be
reached without Arabs, and Arab participation."
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit agreed
that "there should be an Arab role" in the
diplomatic efforts to stabilize the country.
Despite their fear of an overweening
Iranian influence in Iraq, however, there is no
evidence that Iraq's Arab neighbors hope for a
Sunni overthrow of the Shi'ite-Kurdish-dominated
government through force. Instead their aim
appears to be the protection of the rights of the
minority Sunni population.
In an interview
with US public television's Charlie Rose in
mid-February, Saudi Ambassador to the United
States Turki al-Faisal defined the two most basic
interests of Iraqi Sunnis as "an equal share in
the resources of Iraq, mainly oil" and being "safe
from retribution" from Shi'ite militias. That is a
formulation with which Khalilzad would not
Last November, the Arab League
sought to help Sunni and Shi'ite parties begin a
process of reaching a political accommodation by
sponsoring the Cairo Conference of Iraqi parties.
At that meeting, which excluded representatives of
the Sunni insurgents, Arab League diplomats
succeeded in brokering an agreement between Sunni
and Shi'ite representatives on a set of compromise
Gareth Porter is a
historian and analyst of national-security policy.
His latest book, Perils of Dominance:
Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in
Vietnam, was published last June.