Iraq negotiations open line of communication between U.S., Iran

Both the United States and Iran seem to be moving toward direct talks regarding the security situation in Iraq, and that could lead to more comprehensive discussions, including diplomatic ways to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

That’s good news.

Unfortunately, both sides have also dug in their heels on certain issues, requiring a deftness in discussions of which neither side may be capable.

The first bi-lateral talks on trying to reduce the chaos in Iraq are scheduled for May 28 in Baghdad. The announcement comes even as the International Atomic Energy Agency has concluded that Iran has solved certain technological problems and is beginning to enrich uranium on a larger scale than before — though apparently quite far from the scale required to produce uranium enriched enough for a weapon.

The Bush administration has declared it will talk with Iran only about the security situation in Iraq, and not about any wider issues, such as Iranian nuclear efforts or the deplorable human-rights situation in Iran.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (after a predictable warning against U.S. military action against Iran) has said Iran is “ready and prepared” for talks with the United States, though he offered no details about his view of the scope of talks. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, noting that the Iraqi government has urged the United States to engage directly with Iran, told reporters: “We’ve had that channel (for talks with Iran) for some time, and it seemed like a good time to activate it.”

Who will represent each country has not been announced.

It would be prudent not to expect miracles. Iran has ambivalent motives toward Iraq: it is likely Iran has helped to stir up insurgency against U.S. forces just to discomfit the United States and make occupation difficult, but Iran also hopes to have a Shia-dominated (and potentially friendly) government in control of a relatively stable Iraq.

The United States must realize that the goal of making Iraq a stable and reliable ally is not likely in the foreseeable future, but that if Iraq’s neighbors desist from interfering, an Iraq that is not a base for jihadist terrorist activities is a possibility.

If Iran and the United States are realistic, they could take steps toward an Iraq that is not a threat to its neighbors or the rest of the world, which would be in the interest of both countries.

It would be even more helpful if talks regarding Iraq led to wider talks and eventually to consideration of reopening diplomatic and commercial relations. One can understand the emotional appeal of refusing to recognize countries of which one disapproves strongly, but the Godfather knew better. Keep your friends close — and your enemies closer.

The United States is rightly concerned that Iran wants to be the dominant power in the Middle East and may be trying to acquire a nuclear weapon. Some Americans, including some still influential with the administration, are so concerned that they advocate preventive military action to disrupt Iran’s nuclear programs.

However, America knows less about what’s really going on inside Iran than she knew before beginning the invasion of Iraq — and our lack of knowledge in that case has been a huge factor in the catastrophic outcome. One way to remedy this situation would be to reestablish an embassy in Tehran — Justin Logan of the Cato Institute said it would be a “huge coup for the United States” — and commercial relations. Both would offer opportunities to gather more reliable intelligence, through both open and clandestine means.

That would not only give us a better grasp of realistic options, it could give U.S. operatives an opportunity to influence the regime and/or establish better ties with disaffected elements.

For all Ahmadinejad’s bluster, the Iranian regime’s power is potentially precarious. State management of Iran’s huge oil reserves has led to declining revenues, and because of a lack of refinery capacity Iran actually has to import gasoline. There are plenty of pressure points, but it would help to know more to be able to apply pressure effectively.

Unfortunately, the Bush administration trapped itself in a box by declaring it would not negotiate directly with Iran unless Iran stopped all uranium enrichment. That makes it almost impossible to change course without looking like a flip-flopper.

Negotiations over Iraq, however, could provide a way to widen the scope of discussions. Despite its sometimes clueless rhetoric, we hope the administration has this in mind.