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    Middle East
     Feb 10, 2007
Iran wants to talk
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

The United States and Iran have a golden opportunity to hammer out their differences at this weekend's global security conference in Munich. Both US Secretary of Defense Bill Gates and Iran's national security chief, Ali Larijani, will attend the conference, and while there will likely be no direct meeting between the two, there will be ample opportunity through the European interlocutors to mediate on the sidelines of the conference.

Already Larijani has stated that one of the purposes of his participation at the conference is to "negotiate" on the issue of

Iran's nuclear program, thus raising expectations in some European quarters about a potential breakthrough, given the timing coincidence of the conference with Iran's annual celebration of the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the much-anticipated news of Iran's technological breakthrough heralding its entry to the "nuclear club".

"Diplomacy is the only path for important international and regional issues ... Diplomacy can bring trust between the two sides," Iran's former president and head of the powerful Exigency Council, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, said this week.

As part of Iran's new determination to put diplomacy to work, given the February 21 deadline set by the United Nations Security Council for it to halt its uranium-enrichment program, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is increasingly directing Iran's moves, reflected in the dispatch of his personal envoy, former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati, to Moscow. For its part, Russia, already committed to the UN initiatives on Iran, impressed upon Velayati the need to send "reassuring" signals, amid reports of a growing momentum inside Iran in favor of accepting the International Atomic Energy Agency chief's "timeout" proposal.

According to Kim Murphy of the Los Angeles Times, reporting from Iran, "Analysts said it was conceivable Iran could agree to suspend uranium enrichment temporarily, possibly in exchange for a halt to UN sanctions and a security guarantee from the United States." The pertinent question is, of course, whether or not the US would consent to this "crisis prevention" scenario. Indeed, what are the alternatives?

In his latest speech, Khamenei has made it crystal-clear that Iran will retaliate "all around the globe" against US interests if attacked by the United States. Backing words with action, Iran has conducted yet another military exercise in the Persian Gulf and the Sea of Oman, brandishing SSN-4 land-to-sea missiles that can "hit big ships", according to a naval commander.

Also, Iranian Revolutionary Guard commanders have reacted to the latest news regarding the kidnapping of an Iranian diplomat in Baghdad by Iraqi security forces "under the supervision of US forces" by hinting that Iran is also capable of reciprocating by kidnapping American personnel in Iraq.

Henceforth, opportunities for serious escalation and, vice versa, for a timely breakthrough signaling a thaw in US-Iran relations appear to go hand in hand, and it is up to the leadership of both countries to decide which path to follow.

Certainly on Iraq, Iran has been making serious overtures, by agreeing to participate in next month's regional forum in Baghdad, by increasing its economic and financial assistance to Iraq and by offering to train the Iraqi government in counterinsurgency methods, in light of Iran's extensive similar experience, in the words of Iran's ambassador to Iraq in an interview with Newsweek. "Iran wants security and stability in Iraq," Ambassador Hassan Kazemi Qomi is quoted, challenging the US to "give us proof" about Iran's subversive activities in Iraq.

A similar view is expressed by Javad Zarif, Iran's ambassador to the United Nations, in the opinion column of the New York Times. "Forging imaginary new threats, as the United States administration is now doing with Iran, may provide some temporary domestic cover for the failure of the administration's Iraq policy, but it can hardly resolve problems that - as widely suggested - require prudence, dialogue and a genuine search for solutions," wrote Zarif.

The fact is that there is scant direct evidence corroborating the Bush administration's accusations against Iran. In a recent interview with the Council on Foreign Relations, Paul Pillar, a former Central Intelligence Agency operative, confirmed that there is hardly any evidence that Iran is behind the attacks on US forces in Iraq. Ambassadors Zarif and Qomi both have accused US officials of "fabricating" evidence, and in a letter to the New York Times, Iran's mission to the UN states that "the US has now resorted to the soft power of disinformation".

The perils of the new Iraq strategy
Increasingly, it has become clear that US President George W Bush's tactical troop surge is entwined with a new anti-Iran strategy in Iraq that, by definition, targets Iran's allies, including those in the Iraqi power structure. Little surprise, then, that US forces are now going after select Shi'ite officials such as the deputy health minister and a Shi'ite lawmaker they accuse of past atrocities in Kuwait as part and parcel of the new aggressive security plan.

The three-pronged - anti-insurgent, anti-militia and anti-Iran - strategy is premised on the cooperation of the Iraqi army, police and government, who are not only heavily dominated by Shi'ites, but also have a vested interest against the United States' new policy, which has already translated into the gruesome slaughter of hundreds of innocent Shi'ites during the past couple of weeks, in light of the absence of protection by the Shi'ite militias gone into hiding.

But if the US intends to turn Shi'ites against Shi'ites, while weakening the Shi'ite composition of the government and sending strong signals of its new alliance with the anti-Shi'ite Sunnis in Iraq and the region, then it may be in for a rude awakening. The Shi'ites may then switch loyalty by joining the insurgents, causing havoc on the new "counterinsurgency" plan of the White House, with definite help by their Shi'ite brethren in Iran and Lebanon.

The US might be forcing a showdown between the Iraqi army and the Mehdi Army, in which case not only would parts of Baghdad look like Fallujah, but the coalition and the government will be much weakened and will be prime for plucking - perhaps by a more US-friendly strongman.

Meanwhile, cognizant of avoiding any further Shi'ite-Sunni rift, Iran and Saudi Arabia have set up a working committee to deal with the Iraq and Lebanon crises, and Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki has called for an emergency session of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) to deal with Israel's provocative archeological digs at Islam's holy site, Masjid al-Aghsa (more). Yet what is sadly missing in the foreign minister's - or any other Iranian - initiative is a similar call on the OIC to play a more active role vis-a-vis Iraq, by setting up a Sunni-Shi'ite dialogue within that country.

Clearly, Iran's (pan) Islamist diplomacy is lagging behind, and the sooner this major lacuna in Tehran's foreign policy is addressed, the better.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and co-author of "Negotiating Iran's Nuclear Populism", Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume XII, Issue 2, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu. He also wrote "Keeping Iran's nuclear potential latent", Harvard International Review, and is author of Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction.

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