WASHINGTON - With the Democrats taking control of the US Congress and Donald
Rumsfeld being replaced as defense secretary by Robert Gates, Washington has
new avenues to resolve its many problems with Iran.
The key to the elections - and to Iran - is Iraq. In light of the soon-to-be
published Iraq Study Group (ISG) report, it is increasingly clear that headway
can be made neither on Iraq nor on the
nuclear standoff with Iran unless the two are linked.
The victory of the Democrats by taking both the House of Representatives and
the Senate and the firing of Rumsfeld have shifted the balance between the
pragmatists and the neo-conservatives in the administration of President George
W Bush. Rumsfeld was closely allied with Vice President Dick Cheney in opposing
every effort to open up diplomatic channels to Tehran.
According to Lawrence Wilkerson, former secretary of state Colin Powell's chief
of staff, it was Cheney and Rumsfeld who made sure that Washington dismissed
Iran's May 2003 offer to open up its nuclear program, rein in Hezbollah and
cooperate against al-Qaeda. Rumsfeld was also a driving force behind using the
Mujahideen-e Khalq, an Iranian terrorist organization opposed to the ruling
clerics, to weaken Tehran.
Gates, however, belongs to a different school of Republican foreign-policy
thinking. Gates' entrance and the Republican leadership's exit have created a
precious opportunity to change the course on Iraq - and on Iran. For years, the
Bush administration has pursued a maximalist policy based on rejecting any
links between the Iranian nuclear program and the many other areas where the US
and Iran clash. By refusing any linkages, the Bush White House has aimed to
gain maximum concessions from Iran in all areas without ever having to
reciprocate or offer any concessions in return.
This was clearly seen in Afghanistan, where Bush's envoy opened up talks with
Iran to coordinate efforts to dispose the Taliban regime. Bush's intentions
were purely tactical - accept Iranian help in Afghanistan without permitting
the cooperation to lead to a shift in attitude toward Iran. The Iranians, on
the other hand, were hoping that their assistance in Afghanistan would have
strategic implications with an entire new relationship between Tehran and
Washington as the ultimate outcome.
Once Iran's help in Afghanistan was no longer deemed necessary, Washington's
approach to Tehran cooled significantly, much thanks to the influence of
Rumsfeld. Only weeks after the Bonn Conference in December 2001 where Tehran's
assistance was crucial in finding a compromise among Afghanistan's many
warlords, Bush put Iran into the "axis of evil", along with Iraq and North
Korea. Tehran's goodwill gestures were for naught.
"Iran made a mistake not to link its assistance in Afghanistan to American help
in other areas and by just hoping that the US would reciprocate," said Javad
Zarif, Iran's United Nations ambassador who was in charge of negotiations with
Washington over Afghanistan.
The Bush administration's insistence on rejecting all forms of linkages has
made a bad situation worse. On the one hand, the lesson of Afghanistan for
Tehran has been to run a very hard bargain with the US where no help is offered
for free. As a result, Washington has been left to deal with the deteriorating
situation in Iraq by itself.
On the other hand, Washington's efforts to put a halt to Iran's nuclear program
have run into a dead end. Washington has reduced US-Iran relations to a
zero-sum game about enrichment. Either Iran has enrichment, or it doesn't. The
Bush administration has not permitted any middle ground to exist in hopes that
it could completely deprive Iran of all nuclear know-how.
But in this game of winner takes all, Iran has so far been winning. Washington
has not even been able to get the UN Security Council to pass a resolution
imposing travel restrictions on Iranian officials involved in Tehran's nuclear
Much indicates that the only way out of this dead end is to do what Bush and
Rumsfeld have refused to do all along: link Iranian cooperation in Iraq to
Washington's willingness to find a compromise on the nuclear issue, where
enrichment will be seen as a continuous rather than a binary variable. The
White House refused such linkages in the past, since it sought complete
victories. Now, creating linkages is necessary to avoid complete defeats in
both Iraq and in Iran.
James Baker's ISG has already paved the way for dealing with Iran over Iraq,
though Bush is yet to sign off on the idea of linkage. Last month, Baker met
with Javad Zarif at the Iranian ambassador's residence in New York. The meeting
lasted three hours and was deemed very helpful by both sides. Baker was told
that Iran would consider helping the US in Iraq if "Washington first changed
its attitude towards Iran", a euphemism for the Bush administration's
unwillingness to deal with Iran in a strategic manner.
While the political earthquakes in Washington have raised hope that a shift in
both Iraq and Iran may be forthcoming, Bush is still the final decision-maker.
Neither a Democratic Congress nor a pragmatist in charge of the Pentagon is
likely to change the course on Iraq and Iran unless the president recognizes
the reality on the ground - without Iran, the US cannot win in Iraq, and
without linking Iraq to the nuclear issue, Tehran's services are not available.
Dr Trita Parsi is the author of Treacherous Triangle: The Secret
Dealings of Israel, Iran and the United States (Yale University Press, 2007).