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    Middle East
     Apr 12, 2008
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 it.

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 Iraq."

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 Iran."

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 Iran".

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 of Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction. He is a professor of international relations, Bentley College.

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