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POLITICS-US: Iran Is Key to Course Change on Iraq

Analysis by Trita Parsi*

WASHINGTON, Nov 9 2006 (IPS) - Two political earthquakes hit the United States this week. On Tuesday, the Democrats took control of Congress, and the following day, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was replaced by Robert Gates, a member of the senior Bush’s foreign policy team.

Both events open up opportunities for Washington to find 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 report, it is increasingly clear that headway can neither be made on Iraq nor the nuclear stand-off with Iran unless the two are linked.

The victory of the Democrats and the firing of Rumsfeld have shifted the balance between the pragmatists and the neoconservatives in the administration. As secretary of defence, 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 programme, rein in Hezbollah, recognise a two-state solution and cooperate against al Qaeda. Rumsfeld was also a driving force behind using the Mujahedin-e Khalq, an Iranian terrorist organisation opposed to the ruling clerics, to weaken Tehran.

Robert 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 programme and the many other areas where the U.S. 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 President 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 towards 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 between Afghanistan’s many warlords, Bush put Iran into the “Axis of Evil”. 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 U.S. would reciprocate,” Iran’s U.N. Ambassador Javad Zarif, who was in charge of Iran’s negotiations with Washington over Afghanistan, told IPS.

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 United States where no help is offered for free. As a result, Washington has been left to deal with the deteriorating situation in Iraq all by itself.

On the other hand, Washington’s efforts to put a halt to Iran’s nuclear programme have run into a dead-end. Washington has reduced U.S.-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 the winner takes it all, Iran has so far been winning. Washington has not even been able to get the U.N. Security Council to pass a resolution imposing travel restrictions on Iranian officials involved in Tehran’s nuclear programme.

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 in order to avoid complete defeats in both Iraq and in Iran.

James Baker’s Iraq Study Group has already paved the way for dealing with Iran over Iraq, though Bush is yet to sign off on the idea of linkage. Earlier in October, Baker met with Javad Zarif at the Iranian ambassador’s residence in New York. The meeting lasted three hours and was deemed as very helpful by both sides. Baker was told that Iran would consider helping the United States in Iraq if “Washington first changed its attitude towards Iran,” a euphemism for Bush administration’s unwillingness to deal with Iran in a strategic manner.

While the recent political earthquakes in Washington have raised hope that a shift in both Iraq and Iran may be forthcoming, President 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 recognises the reality on the ground – without Iran, the United States 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).

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