Tehran keeps its options open
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
Amid the avalanche of anti-Iran rhetoric reaching new heights, including the
top US commander and US diplomat in Iraq accusing Tehran of "nefarious
activities," US government officials have extended a tiny olive branch toward
Iran by submitting a formal request for a fourth round of dialogue with Iran on
the issue of Iraq's security.
According to Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Muhammad Ali Hosseini, the
US request has been submitted through the Swiss Embassy in Iran, which is in
charge of the United States' interests in Iran, and is under consideration by
Tehran. However, the Baghdad daily, al-Sabah, quoted Iraqi Deputy Foreign
Minister Muhammad al-Haj Hmoud as saying US-Iran dialogue would take
place within the next several days. The Iranian media have reported this news
and yet, as of this writing, there has been no official Iranian confirmation of
Iran's silence and its reluctance to jump into another round of dialogue with
the US stems from Tehran's unhappiness with the avalanche of anti-Iran
animosity, reflected in the latest US Congressional testimony of General David
Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, who accused Iran of "nefarious" and "malign"
activities in Iraq, in essence blaming Iran for the recent explosion of
violence in the southern city of Basra and Baghdad between the Iraqi government
and the Shi'ite Mahdi Army led by Muqtada al-Sadr.
Per the agreement reached at the third round of dialogue in August 2007, the US
and Iran should be dealing with each other continuously at the "expert level",
and at present Iran is ambivalent as to whether or not the next round should be
held at a higher, ie ambassadorial, level. Nor is Iran convinced that any
tangible results can be gained by engaging in any further talks with a
Washington that constantly demonizes Iran and now openly blames it as "the
reason we're bogged down in Iraq, and also the reason we can't pull out our
troops", to paraphrase an article in The Washington Post.
"The US has now cornered itself into a 'hate Iran' mentality that for all
practical purposes precludes even a mini-breakthrough in the dialogue [on
Iraq's security]," a Tehran University political science professor informs the
author, adding, "Even when Iran manages to make a huge difference by helping to
silence the guns, all that the Americans see is Iran's fingers behind the
triggers, but that is a vast caricature of complex realities in Iraq."
Echoing the sentiment, Muhsin al-Hakim, the spokesman for the Supreme Islamic
Iraqi Council in an interview with the Iranian website www.irdiplomacy.com,
praised Iran's constructive role. While criticizing the Mahdi Army for allowing
itself to be penetrated by "elements from UAE [United Arab Emirates], Kuwait
and Syria," he stated:
Iran made a huge contribution to the cessation
of confrontations in Iraq. A delegation from the United Front went to Iran at
the height of skirmishes [in Basra] and held conversations and then went to
Muqtada al-Sadr. This method had a big influence in the negotiations with
Muqtada al-Sadr and succeeded in reducing tensions considerably.
There is, in other words, a vast perception gap between the US and Iraqi
politicians regarding Iran's role in the latest confrontation between the Mahdi
Army and government forces, as well as with respect to the US's stated
rationale for an indefinite military presence in Iraq, citing instability, the
government's fragility, and Iran's meddling.
Concerning the latter, in response to Petraeus' testimony calling for a halt of
US troop withdrawal, a spokesperson for the Iraqi government, Ali al-Dabagh,
rebuffed Petraeus, stating, "The Iraqi government believes that there is no
need for delaying the timetable for the withdrawal of American forces from
Clearly, the issue of a timetable for a US exit from Iraq is inextricably
linked to any "diplomatic surge that includes Iran", to paraphrase US Senator
Hillary Clinton in her remarks at the testimony of Petraeus and Crocker.
Sure, Iran has "publicly stated that it will fill any vacuum in Iraq", as
Petraeus told Congress, yet it would be sheer error on the US's part to ignore
Iran's predominant interest in Iraq's security and stability, the lack of which
threatens Iran's own interests. A US engagement of Iran based on superficial
understanding of Iran's national security concerns and related policies is
bound to fail. Instead, what Washington badly needs is a sober assessment of
Iran's actual national security policies and not simply the official rhetoric.
According to Mahmoud Vaezi, a former deputy foreign minister, "At present, the
three main national security concerns of Iran, which are interrelated, are:
terrorism and extremism, weak governments and crisis of government, and the
intervention of non-regional powers."
With respect to Iraq, Vaezi has pointed at "new threats against Iran after the
downfall of Saddam Hussein, in the form of extremism, terrorism, ethnic and
religious tensions and the possibility of their spreading to the region, as
well as the intensification of the US military presence near the borders of
Most Iranian analysts believe that the US deliberately keeps the Baghdad
government weak to perpetuate its US dependency, and that the real aim behind
the recent US media campaign against Iran, in the aftermath of the historic
Baghdad visit by Iran's President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, is to drive a wedge
between Tehran and Baghdad.
In response, Iran has officially backed the efforts of Prime Minister Nuri
al-Maliki against "criminal elements", and Iran's ambassador to Iraq, Hassan
Kazemi Qomi, in an interview with CNN, has hit at the US for "scapegoating
There is the danger of attributing too much influence to Iran and thus reducing
the autonomy of Iraqi Shi'ite politics, its segmented, fractious nature and so
forth, to an appendage of Iranian remote control.
The US needs to move beyond such self-serving, simplistic and exaggerated
misperceptions and recognize that the "double-edged sword" of Iranian influence
is both mainly a response to the US's interventionist policy and, as seen in
the recent past, it is quite capable of a stabilizing, productive role. This is
particularly so if the external threats against Iran subside and Iran's
national security concerns are addressed, that is, a healthy new approach
toward Iran is adopted in Washington. By all indications, these are wishful
expectations for the remainder of the George W Bush administration's term.
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
Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction. He is a
professor of international relations, Bentley College.