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    Middle East
     Sep 18, 2007
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Growing need for US-Iran confidence steps
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

The rising tensions between the United States and Iran represent a serious threat to regional and global peace that, if not remedied by prudent conflict reduction mechanisms, may lead to war. Those tensions, reflected in the considerable ratcheting up of Washington's anti-Iran rhetoric, have been framed by various US officials and pundits as symptomatic of a "new cold war", giving the US the necessary alibi for an indefinite military presence in

Iraq under the guise of an Iran "containment policy".

Indeed, both US President George W Bush's policy speech on Iraq last Thursday and the past week's congressional testimony of the top US commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, and the US ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, have made it abundantly clear that there is a shift in the strategic outlook for the US military mission in Iraq pertaining to Iran, couched in the language of containment and deterrence.

As expected, Iran has lambasted the reports by Petraeus and Crocker, and Iran's spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has lashed out at Bush as a "war criminal" who should be put on trial for the United States' atrocities in Iraq.

Meanwhile, the Iranian media are awash with reports of the United States' "hypocrisy" in embracing Sunni extremist and terrorist groups in Iraq, who hate the current Shi'ite-led government. And Iran's ambassador to Iraq, Hossein Kazemi Qomi, has told CNN that the US has committed "two strategic errors ... The first mistake is their effort to return, to bring back to power, people accused of murders from the previous regime." And the second error is "arming some Sunni groups and terrorist groups that operate against the Iraqi government".

Both Qomi and National Security Chief Ali Larijani have reacted to the anti-Iran tone of Petraeus's testimony by pointing out that most of the terrorists "come from countries friendly with America". According to Qomi, "Not even one Iranian citizen has ever participated in the terrorist attacks on American forces."

The Faustian bargain of the US military with Sunni extremists does not bode well for the United States' simultaneous pressure on the Iraqi government to reach the "political benchmark" of creating a trans-sect government of national unity. But then again, that is only one of many inconsistencies and contradictions of the United States' hitherto disastrous Iraq policy.

Yet somehow that policy, costing the US in the region of US$300 million a day, [1] as well as an average of two US casualties and 15 US wounded per day, per Petraeus's testimony, has been declared a winning strategy by the White House. It has reframed the Iraq debate now less in terms of Iraq's nation-building and more in terms of anti-terrorism and anti-Iran priorities, thus setting itself an entirely new benchmark that is beyond the control of the government in Baghdad. Or is it?

The United States' nominal lip service to Iraq's sovereignty means that the Iraqi government and Parliament must approve Washington's planned base-building near the Iran-Iraq border. Yet Iraqi officials were apparently not even consulted prior to an announcement on this issue. Larijani predicts that the Iraqi government will veto the plan, but this may not be so in light of a recent statement by an Iraqi government spokesman accusing Iran of "meddling in Iraq".

In an interview with Al-Jazeera, Larijani stated that Iran is not in favor of immediate withdrawal of US forces from Iraq. This echoes an earlier statement by Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, in his recent interview with the London Financial Times, that Iran favors an orderly, gradual withdrawal of US troops.

Thus President Bush's announcement - of modest troop withdrawal and the retention of the bulk of US forces in Iraq for the foreseeable future - does not necessarily represent an affront to Iran, which is highly concerned about the threat of conflict spillover and mass refugees following a chaos-generating premature departure of US forces. On the other hand, Washington's new accent on the Iran threat in Iraq translates into new Iranian worries about the United States' true intentions. [2]

Consequently, the troubled ship of US-Iran diplomacy is deeply anchored in a sea of mutual suspicion and acrimony, with numerous potential flash points on the horizon, ranging from Lebanon to Syria, to Iraq and the Persian Gulf, that could quickly sink the nascent tide of "engagement" recommended by the Iraq Study Group, and feebly adopted by the Bush administration. The next question is, where does one go from here?

Former Iranian foreign minister Kemal Kharazi, now heading a newly formed Strategic Council on Foreign Relations, illuminated Iran's thinking in a recent interview with the Iranian press. According to Kharazi, the US-Iran dialogue on Iraq's security is "tactical and not-strategic" and Iran "is not prepared for comprehensive talks" with the US. Citing "serious conflicts of interests" between Iran and the US, Kharazi called for exploring "ways for exiting this environment", and declaring Iran's willingness to continue dialogue with the US only if the US "accepts the principle of mutual respect".

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ali Hosseini, on the other hand, has stated that if the Iraqi government makes an official request for a fourth round of US-Iran dialogue, Iran will participate irrespective of its misgivings about anti-Iran provocations in Washington.

But not everyone in Washington is sold on the idea of upping the ante against Iran. The New York Times has reported of a growing rift between the hawks, led by Vice President Dick Cheney, and

Continued 1 2 

US and Europe drain Iran's half-full glass (Sep 14, '07)

US may attack, but will Iran fight back? (Sep 12, '07)

Anti-Iran hype reaches fever pitch (Sep 12, '07)

1. Mr Bush, your sheikh is dead

2. Petraeus out of step with US top brass

3. Russia's new premier has bite 

4. Behind the Anbar myth 

5. That '800-pound gorilla' ...  

6. Deep flaws in Afghan peace drive   

7. Money won't supply your
soup spoon

8. Sri Lanka's Tigers take a big hit

9. US and Europe drain Iran's half-full glass

10. Al-Qaeda sets Lebanon record straight

(Sep 14-16, 2007)


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