Syria-Iran tussle over Iraq?

As the US withdrawal from Iraq become an increasingly firm prospect, the tussle is now quite predictably intensifying among the war-shattered country’s neighbors for influence over what remains of it.
One intriguing example of this is the very serious spat that erupted yesterday between largely Iranian-backed Iraqi PM, Nuri al-Maliki, and the government of Syria.
At issue are Maliki’s allegations that the extremely deadly bombings of last Wednesday were the work of Baathist networks whose leaders have been sheltered by Syria, and his demand that Syria hand them over to Iraq for trial. The Syrians deny that the wanted men, Mohammad Younis al-Ahmed and Sattam Farhan, are in their country, and point out that they have roundly condemned the bombings.
This new conflict between Baghdad and Damascus is serious– and its timing seems very surprising. Just last week, Maliki undertook a seemingly very successful and lovey-dovey visit to Damascus. He and his Syrian counterpart agreed to set up a “strategic cooperation council”. They agreed to ” establish a mechanism for high-level military dialogue” and pursue many joint economic opportunities.
And in a joint statement, they said,

    “The fraternal relationship between Syria and Iraq is characterized by strong social and pan-Arab ties, as well as common history, culture and neighboring relations of both countries.”

Well, so much for that “fraternal relationship”, eh?
What seems to have happened is that Baghdad’s relationship with Syria has gotten tangled up in the internal power struggle now going on inside the Iraqi regime over how closely it should align with Iran.
When I was in Damascus in June, several of the close-to-power people we talked with there were at pains to note two significant things about Iraq: (a) that the Syrian government considers stabilizing the regime there to be a high priority for them, and (b) that despite Damascus’s long and close strategic relationship with Iran, Syrians see their goals for Iraq as very different from, and sometimes clearly at odds with, those of Iran.
Damascus’s goal for Iraq, they said, is that Iraq should be stable, Arab, and basically secular. Iran’s goal, they allege, is that Iraq should be Shiite-dominated and basically follow Tehran’s theocratic model of governance regardless of whether this threatened the unity and stability of Iraq as a whole.
Damascus’s policy on all this is also influenced by the degree to which the Syrian government, which is basically secular and depends a lot for its internal stability on its pan-Arab credentials, feels it is getting support from other significant Arab powers, principally Saudi Arabia. When Syrian-Saudi relations are tense– as they were from 2005 until about three months ago– then the Syrian government feels less confident about risking a rupture with Tehran.
Right now, both Syria and Saudi Arabia probably feel they have a shared interest in minimizing the amount of influence Tehran can exercise over the Baghdad government– though I doubt if policymakers in either of those governments feel they can eliminate Iran’s influence completely, in the same way that Saddam Hussein was able to do, through the exercise of great internal repression, so long as he was in power…
That there is a huge internal tussle going on right now in the heart of the Iraqi regime is quite evident– though the actual line-ups and interests at work there are still extremely murky.
Last Wednesday’s bomb blast came six years to the day after the fateful August 19 bomb blast of 2003 that killed UN envoy Sergio Vieira De Mello and inaugurated a new period of considerable post-invasion political instability within the country. This year’s August 19 blast killed more than 100 people and left the finance and foreign ministry buildings pertaining to the Maliki government substantially wrecked.
Shortly after the blasts, the ethnically Kurdish Foreign Minister, Hoshyar Zebari, voiced the serious allegation that they were the work of senior security officers within (other parts of) the regime. I find Juan Cole’s logic in claiming that the bombings were aimed at the blocs/parties in control of the targeted ministries to most likely be valid.
The education ministry was also targeted, though not I think as badly hit. It is controlled by a branch of Maliki’s own Daawa Party. The finance ministry has been in the hands of ISCI (whose leader Abdel-Aziz Hakim died in Iran earlier today.) Foreign affairs has, obviously, been largely run and staffed by ethnic Kurds.
I disagree, however, with Juan’s other main conclusion: that the bombings were likely the work of former Baathists, rather than Qaeda-related networks. I also think his allegation “Iraqi Sunni Arab resistance in exile in Syria… are running terrorist cells inside Iraq”, and that these networks were connected withe August 19 bombings, is a serious one that he does nothing whatsoever to authenticate or provide a source for.
But it is, certainly, murky. And all the more so because of the political developments that have been erupting within the coalition that’s been more or less “running” Iraq since 2007, under the different forms of tutelage provided by both the US military and the Iranian theocrats.
On Monday, Raed Jarrar had this fascinating analysis of what’s been going on.
In his view, it was Maliki who took the initiative in breaking his links with what Raed calls the “gang of four”: that is, the two Kurdish parties, ISCI, and the (Sunni) Islamic Accord Party. In his view, Maliki was doing this for these reasons:

    1- Demographic cleansing: Al-Maliki is against partitioning Iraq now. The gang of 4 have been following and promoting a separatist agenda aimed at creating sectarian/ethnic/religious regions that are self governed instead of having a strong central government in Baghdad running the country. The gang of 4 have been supporting the cleansing campaigns directly and indirectly for years. Al-Maliki’s recent attempts to reverse ethnic and sectarian cleansing and remove all walls in Baghdad were faced by fierce criticism by the gang of four. Following last week’s organized attacks in Baghdad, Hoshyar Zibari (a kurdish separatist who happened to be Iraq’s minister of foreign affairs) claimed the reason behind the attacks is Al-Maliki’s plan to remove the partitioning walls!
    2- Central government vs. regional powers: Al-Maliki is now for keeping and even increasing the powers of the central government. Mainly because he’s fighting for his own position’s authorities, and because he’s catering to the Iraqi public opinion that, according to numerous polls, favors a model where the central government runs a united and sovereign nation.
    3- Ending foreign intervention(s): Al-Maliki’s support for a plan where ALL U.S. troops must leave Iraq has been against the gang of four’s interests. They realize that the U.S. is there protecting them and supporting their weak and unpopular regime, and more importantly, the US is fighting their fight against other Iraqis.

(Raed also expressed this important conclusion: “There is a lot of violence coming ahead, but this does not mean in anyway the US occupation should last for an extra day… There is nothing that the US can do to fix the situation other than leaving Iraq completely and stopping all forms of intervention in Iraq’s domestic issues.”)
The WaPo and NYT accounts of the political split inside the Baghdad regime both seem to attribute much more of the momentum for the split to the non-Maliki side than to him… But I tend to respect Raed Jarrar’s feel for intra-Iraqi politics more than I do that of any of those western journos.
And meanwhile, from Syria, came this analysis piece today from the always well-informed Sami Moubayed.
First of all, Moubayed lays out a very well argued refutation of the accusations of Syrian complicity in last week’s bombings. Then he asks,

    why blame Syria? Clearly, from the contradicting remarks of Iraqi ministers, Black Wednesday puts many top officials in very difficult positions. It proves just how weak and divided they are – exposing them before ordinary Iraqis who are furious at the rising death toll and want answers from their elected representatives.
    … Nobody in Iraq wants to know who carried out the Wednesday attacks, because reality would expose dramatic mismanagement of government office. That in turn would drown many parliamentary hopefuls in January’s elections. It therefore suits all officials to cover up for their shortcomings by blaming Syria.
    Nobody in the Iraqi government would dare blame Iran or Saudi Arabia, because of the financial and military clout these countries have in Iraq, along with their respective army of followers. Left standing is Syria, which happens to be Ba’athist and still has Iraqi fugitives on its territory.
    In recalling their ambassador from Damascus, the Iraqis will have to deal with the aftershocks in their relationship with Syria. Iraq needs the Syrians much more than Damascus needs Baghdad. Iraq needs it for economic issues related to the pumping of oil and rebuilding of the war-torn country. It needs it to mediate explosive conflicts between Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds, whose leaders were all one-time residents of Damascus and still have excellent relations with the Syrians.
    Iraq needs it to police the Syrian-Iraqi border, and to continue playing host to over 1 million Iraqi refugees based in Syria since 2003. Iraq needs Damascus to mediate talks between Maliki and both Ba’athists and Sunni tribes. It also needs the Syrians to legitimize the Maliki regime, or whatever succeeds it in January, in the eyes of ordinary Iraqi Sunnis who have historically looked towards Syria for shelter and support.
    When Syria decided to open an embassy in Baghdad in late 2008, this greatly legitimized Maliki in the eyes of ordinary Iraqis, who until then saw him as nothing but a sectarian clown who had nothing but animosity for the Sunni community and wanted to punish it collectively for having produced Saddam Hussein.
    It is one thing when countries like Jordan or Egypt recognize Maliki and legitimize his administration, but a completely different matter when this is done by Syria, a country that remains dominated by a strong brand of Arab nationalism that is appealing to the Iraqi street.
    In as much as the sending of an ambassador was symbolic for the Syrians, recalling him is equally symbolic, and will cause plenty of damage for the prime minister, who needs a broad constituency among Sunnis and Shi’ites in preparation for the elections.

Well, let’s see how this plays out.
I just wish we had some kind of leading body in the international community who could get the leaders of Iraq and all its neighbors into one room together and get them to agree on strict codes for non-intervention, nonviolence, and de-escalation of tensions among them.
But alas, we have no such body. After many years of systematic US downgrading of the role and efficacy of the UN, the UN is just a shadow of what it should be today. And the US itself is clearly incapable of playing a neutral, calming role like this.

A new mediator for Tehran & Washington: Iraq!

So now, the ever-mercurial Ali Dabbagh, spokesman for Iraqi PM Nuri al-Maliki, says he’s been urging Barack Obama to initiate a serious, sustained dialogue with Iran.
Reuters reports that Dabbagh,

    also called for dialogue to improve relations between Iran and Arab countries. “The time has come for a new, serious, and calm policy with an open-minded vision,” Dabbagh said.

(HT: Bill the spouse).
So now the Iraqi government, joint foster-child of Washington and Tehran, wants “mommy” and “daddy” to start talking nicely with each other. Good for Maliki.
It’s important that he takes– and hopefully sticks to– this position. Remember back when the US was trying to gin up anti-Iranian feeling in the US on the grounds that Iran was undertaking various heinous efforts to attack and undermine the Baghdad government? Now the foster-child is putting his own voice directly into the discussion.
Reuters adds this:

    Without specifying whether he was addressing Iran or the United States, Dabbagh called for respect for international law, alternatives to military solutions to conflict, and for regional answers to regional problems.
    “Solutions (must not be) forced from outside,” he said.

By the way, I don’t speak Farsi but there are some reports (e.g. here) that “Obama” can be understood by Farsi speakers as meaning “he is with us.” That, along with the president-elect’s other two names, could connect powerfully with the millennialism that seems to rumble around in the hearts of many of Iran’s theocrats. Can any readers here shed more light on the linguistic, sociological, or political aspects of this question?

Biggest items on next Prez’s plate

Here’s a good question: Why would anyone want to become president of the United States at a time of such huge and multifaceted crises?
Well, I guess two years ago, when these men decided to throw their hats into the ring, things didn’t look this bad.
But now, on the eve of this year’s election, I’m relatively reassured that in Barack Obama we have a person with the kind of breadth of vision and decision-making skills that will be needed to help our country chart a course through the next four (eight?) years that is as humane, inclusive, and compassionate as possible.
(Though I repeat: No, I don’t expect that, absent continued grassroots pressure, Obama will be anywhere near as humane, inclusive, and compassionate as I would like. So we’ll need to keep up the pressure on him. But he certainly looks closer to my ideal of wise leadership than John McCain does at this time.)
In today’s WaPo, David Ignatius has a column that looks at what’s going to be “on the new president’s plate” come January. It is uncharacteristically disappointing. For starters, it has a glaring internal inconsistency that makes it impossible to figure out what it is that David judges will be “the hardest” or “the worst” problem facing the new Prez. (I’m assuming those two superlatives are supposed to relate to the same item?)
David writes, “Let’s start with the hardest problem, which is Iraq…” And then, a few paras lower, he writes, “And now comes the worst problem of all, the economy…”
So which is the worst/hardest, David? This matters, because resources, attention, and priority should surely be accorded to the problem/challenge that “the worst”.
For my part, I think the “worst” one right now is the economy– with, of course, the grossly over-extended and actually unsustainable nature of our country’s military deployments being a major factor in the country’s indebtedness and general, continuing financial/economic malaise.
But Ignatius, who usually seems pretty savvy on matters Iranian, also makes what I consider to be a gross error of judgment regarding Tehran’s current interests inside Iraq.
About the US war/occupation of Iraq, he writes,

    Obama may have opposed the war in 2002, but if he’s elected, it will become his war on Jan. 21. Iran is waging an all-out campaign to push America out as soon as possible — to inflict a visible, painful defeat on the United States. How can the next president extricate America from this war without further empowering Iran?

I think his judgment about Iran there is flat-out wrong. As I noted have noted for a while, most recently here and here, and as others like Rob Malley and Hossein Agha have argued before, right now Iran has a strong (though necessarily somewhat concelaed) interest in keeping a broad deployment of US troops spread out inside Iraq. It’s one of their best guarantees against any US or US-enabled military attack against their country.
Most of the US troops in Afghanistan are deployed much further away from Iran’s borders and would be significantly harder to retaliate against than those in Iraq. Plus, the US troops in Afghanistan have a noticeably stronger “shield” of support/legitimacy from the international community than those in Iraq.
Tehran’s interest in keeping US troops deployed widely inside Iraq for some time to come– and at least until the Supreme Leader can feel reassured that a US (or US-enabled) military attack against his country is finally “off the table”– makes the US’s interactions and choices inside Iraq very different from what Ignatius posits.
And actually, I’d have to say that the US deployment inside Iraq is now not at the top of my list of “most urgent challenges” for the next Prez for these reasons:

    1. Bush and Petraeus– and, crucially, the pressure of events on the ground, the needs of global US force-planning and the US budget– have already pushed the US military project in Iraq into a “drawdown toward the end-game” phase. Yes, there will still be some very important decisions to be made. (Indeed, some of the most important of these will still need to be made by Bush and other current world leaders: Before December 31, they will be the ones deciding the terms on which the UN mandate to “the coalition” inside Iraq gets renewed.) But all the inside-Washington talk about “conditionality”, “benchmarks”, etc, relating to a continuing US troop presence in Iraq has been nonsense for a long time already… Honestly, there are no serious remaining issues to be decided in that regard. The Iraqis– or perhaps the Iranians– have “won” in Iraq. What’s clear already is that, at the political level, the US has “lost.” Deal with it.
    2. In a very important way, the “how” of the US getting out of Iraq, is a subset of of the “how” of how the US will deal with Iran, for the reasons explicated above. That means that the Iranian question– which also has several other very important dimensions– is more important for the new Prez to deal with than the Iraq question.

I don’t have time to write much more here. I just want to note that, regarding the economic crisis, my biggest hope is that the new Prez will think very broadly about what kind of America he wants to see emerging from the present cascade of challenges. I have a bunch of things to write about that. I started to do that a little bit, back in September, in my post on “Re-imagining America”. But now, I want to refine/revise those thoughts quite a bit.
Now is definitely the time to do that!
(Off to Quaker meeting…. Ommmm.)

The struggle for Baghdad’s soul?

The WaPo’s Mary Beth Sheridan has a piece in today’s paper describing the US-Iraqi negotiations over a SOFA as having an important backstory of a US-Iranian struggle for influence over the Iraqi government’s decisionmaking. She writes:

    A deal to authorize the presence of American forces in Iraq beyond 2008 is forcing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to choose between two influential powers in this country: the United States and Iran.
    U.S. officials had hoped Iraq would quickly approve the accord put before the cabinet this month, which would give 150,000 American troops legal authority to remain in Iraq after Dec. 31. But Iraqi political leaders have balked. Maliki has not openly supported the agreement forged by his negotiating team.
    As the U.S. ponders withdrawal, it is clear that American political capital in Iraq is waning as Iran’s grows…

She then describes Ghassan al-Attiyah, an Iraqi political analyst at London’s Iraq Foundation for Development and Democracy in London as describing the Maliki government as being torn equally between both foreign powers.
For my part, I wrote back in early June that I thought Washington had lost the battle for influence over Baghdad’s decisionmaking, and I see no reason to change that judgment now.
Let’s review a couple of facts:

    1. The US has been extremely eager to “persuade” the Baghdad government to conclude a long-term security agreement it. Baghdad has thus far resisted these entreaties– though it has signed a security agreement with Iran.
    2. The US has also been extremely eager to “persuade” the Baghdad parliament to pass oil legislation that would thereafter allow western oil firms to conclude legally sound contracts with the Baghdad government. The Iraqi government and parliament have been playing a prolonged game of “pass the parcel” regarding that oil legislation, so western oil firms have not yet been able to sign contracts with the Baghdad government. Meantime, back in June, Baghdad concluded a significant ($3 billion) oilfield development/rehab contract with China.

Why do the MSM in the US not report these things, and not take them into adequate account when they’re assessing the present state of play inside Iraq? Why do they connive so deeply in perpetuating the myth maintained by the Bush administration that, (a) the recent history of the US intervention in Iraq has been one of some strategic success; (b) if we can’t yet exactly see the success, still, it is just around the corner; and (c) that Washington is still, definitely, in a position to be able to impose its “conditions” on Baghdad?
However, what is happening in and over Iraq right now is not a purely bilateral, zero-sum game between the influence of Washington and that of Tehran. This, because there are significant actors within Tehran that see the continued deployment of some US troops in Iraq as helpful to their own security (by providing a self-deterrent against any US or US-enabled attack against Iran.)
I think this is the best context in which to understand the otherwise bizarre “threat” that Gen. Ray Odierno delivered to the Baghdad government last week, namely that if the Baghdad government didn’t hurry up and sign the SOFA on the terms Washington wants, why then the US forces might all just have to pack up and go home.
From the point of view of Iraqi PM Nuri al-Maliki and a strong majority of both the Iraqi population and the Iraqi parliament, that outcome would be just fine. In poll after poll after poll, a strong majority of Arab Iraqis (though not of members of the Kurdish community that makes up around 17% of the national population) say that that is just what they want to happen.
So as a political “threat” against Maliki it doesn’t make any sense. And one has to assume that even Ray Odierno is smart enough to understand that at this point?
But Odierno was presumably calculating that the US message (blackmail threat?) to Maliki would also be heard in Tehran… And there, by contrast, it might indeed have some political traction and relevance?
If this is the case, as I suspect, then we could conclude that Tehran might currently be exerting quiet pressure on the Maliki government to make some of the concessions in the SOFA negotiations that Odierno and his masters seek?
Interesting, if so.

US and Iran: A welcome diplomatic opening

The US and Iranian ambassadors in Baghdad met for four hours earlier today, hosted by Iraqi PM Nuri al-Maliki in his office in the Baghdad Green Zone.
This was the highest-level bilateral (trilateral) meeting between officials of Iran and the US since Washington broke diplomatic ties with Teheran in 1980. The length of today’s meeting was a welcome indicator that some serious– if still necessarily preliminary– diplomatic business got done.
In that report linked to above, Reuters’ Ross Colvin wrote that both sides afterwards described the meeting as “positive.”
He wrote that the Iranian ambassador, Hassan Kazemi-Qomi, called the meeting “a first step in negotiations between these two sides” and said Tehran would seriously consider an Iraqi invitation for further discussions.
Colvin wrote that K-Q’s American counterpart, Ryan Crocker,

    said he had been less interested in arranging further meetings than laying out Washington’s case that Shi’ite Iran is arming, funding and training Shi’ite militias in Iraq, a charge Iran denies.

Colvin wrote that Kazemi-Qomi said Iran

    saw positive steps in the talks.
    “Some problems have been raised and studied and I think this was a positive step … In the political field, the two sides agreed to support and strengthen the Iraqi government, which was another positive item achieved in these talks,” he said.
    He said Iran had offered to help train and arm Iraq’s security forces, presently the job of the U.S. military
    Crocker said he would refer to Washington a proposal by the Iranians for a mechanism with Iranian, U.S. and Iraqi participation to coordinate Iraqi security matters.
    He said he had told the Iranians they must end their support for the militias, stop supplying them with explosives and ammunition and rein in the activities of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Qods Force in Iraq.
    The Iranians had rejected the allegations but did not respond in detail. In turn, they had criticized the “occupying” U.S. military’s training and equipping of the new Iraqi army, saying it was “inadequate to the challenges faced”.
    … In a brief address to the delegations before the start of the talks, Maliki said Iraq would not be a launchpad for any attacks on neighboring states, an apparent reference to Iranian fears of a U.S. attack. It would also not brook any regional interference in its affairs, he added.

Colvin noted that the talks, “come as U.S. warships hold war games in the Gulf and after Tehran said it had uncovered spy networks on its territory run by Washington and its allies.”
The talks also, of course (though Colvin didn’t mention this) come as the region-spanning tensions over both Iran’s nuclear-engineering program and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are running high. For my part, I find it very hard indeed to see how the US-Iraq-Iran imbroglio can be sustainably defused unless those other components of what I have called the “perfect storm” of three concurrent and linked crises in the Middle East can also be put on the path to sustainable resolution…
But still, to have these two significant governments at last apparently talking seriously about shared concerns in Iraq, rather than engaging in an open shooting war there or anywhere else, is a huge blessing for all of humankind, and especially for the long-suffering residents of Iraq and the rest of the Middle East.
Let’s just first of all, all say a big thanks for that.
I have a few more comments on today’s developments:
(1) The role of the Iraqi government in the emerging US-Iranian negotiations (I guess it is still too soon to call this a US-Iranian “relationship”?)
But the Maliki government’s role in this is intriguing. Obviously, when Pres. Bush made the decision to invade Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein’s regime, one of his key goals was to install a reliably pro-US government there. Maliki emerged as PM as a result of an electoral process that was completely dominated by the US. But the demographic and political realities of Iraq meant that any use of anything approaching a “fair” electoral process there always meant that the product of such a process would be a leadership much more responsive to the urgings of “brotherly” and neighboring Iran than to those from distant, and very “foreign”, Washington.
How on earth could the Bushites ever have expected anything different? (Because they always systematically blocked out any input into their decisionmaking from objective scholars and analysts who actually knew something about Iraq, is how. But we don’t need to revisit that here.)
So now, we start to see some of the diplomatic results of that.
It is notable that today’s talks– and presumably, the continuing diplomatic process that we can now expect will flow from them– are being described as “hosted by” Maliki. Okay, he is still to a large degree the “captive” of the US forces, there in the Green Zone. But these days, the Americans may well need him– to provide a veneer of political legitimacy to their presence in Iraq– just as much as, if not more than, he needs them (to, among other things, protect him from the wrath of an Iraqi citizenry that is very fed-up with the fact he has been able able to deliver almost nothing of any value to them…)
It is notable too that, at a time when the political elite in the US is abuzz with discussions of Maliki’s many claimed “shortcomings” as Iraq’s PM, the Iranian negotiator was saying that the Iranian government wants to give the the Maliki government more support, including through the provision of military and security-force training– in a move that seems couched as a thinly veiled criticism of what the US has been doing in this field up until now.
(2) The exchange of accusations between the US and Iran.
Crocker trotted out the US’s very well-rehearsed litany of accusations of Iran’s unjustified “meddling” in Iraq. All of which are, of course, particularly rich, coming as they do from a power that sent troops, fighter-bombers, and cruise missiles halfway round the world to intervene extremely illegitimately in Iraq!
But the Iranians also have their own, very numerous, accusations regartding the US’s many– and generally much better documented– hostile acts and declarations against them.
These include Congress’s funding of regime-change activities; the Pentagon’s despatch of an additional large naval task force to the waters very near Iran’s coast, and their conduct of some large-scale military exercizes there; the US forces’ recent arrests of five Iranian diplomats in Erbil, northern Iraq… And most recently, the accusations that Teheran’s Intelligence Ministry made last Saturday that it had,

    “succeeded in finding, recognizing and confronting some spy networks of infiltrating elements from the Iraqi occupiers in west, southwest and central Iran… These spy networks were guided by the intelligence services of the occupiers and were supported by some influential Iraqi groups.”

The Iranian news agency IRNA promised that more details of this accusation would be forthcoming “in the next few days.”
No indication was given there whether these “spy networks of infiltrating elements” were connected at all with the bitterly anti-mullah Iranian dissident organization the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, which has some 3,800 fighters concentrated in Camp Ashraf, which is around 60 km north of Baghdad (and 100 km west of the Iranian border.)
The US has formally designated the MEK as a terrorist organization. But in early April, CNN was reporting that, “The U.S. military… regularly escorts MEK supply runs between Baghdad and its base, Camp Ashraf.” The reporter there did not specify what these “supplies” were, though he quoted the camp’s MEK leader as saying that what was involved was “procurement of logistical needs.” As third-country nationals in a country under military occupation, the occupying power has a responsibility to ensure that the MEK members’ basic humanitarian needs are met– but certainly not their need for “logistics”, whatever that term might cover… And especially not, given that the MEK as as an organization is still designated as a “foreign terrorist organization.”
There have been various reports of other, non-MEK, Iraq-based and US- and british-backed saboteurs undertaking acts of violence and other hostile actions inside Iran in recent months, too.
The CNN reporter wrote in April that Shirwan al-Wa’eli, Iraq’s national security minister, had said,

    “We gave this organization [the MEK] a six-month deadline to leave Iraq, and we informed the Red Cross…And presumably, our friends the Americans will respect our decision and they will not stay on Iraqi land.”

I found it interesting that in today’s press briefing, Amb. Kazemi-Qomi made no mention of the MEK– or indeed, of any of the accusations that Iran has about anti-Iranian actions being undertaken or supported by the US government, whether from Iraq or from elsewhere. Rather than getting drawn into endless rounds of reciprocal accusations, K-Q seemed more intent on being “statesmanlike”, and on focusing on the forward-looking agenda regarding his government’s negotiations with the US– an agenda that Crocker and most of the rest of the Bushites are seem noticeably reluctant to think about or talk about in public.
(And regarding the MEK, the Iranians are probably more intent on trying to work bilaterally with the Maliki government to get the MEK camp or camps dismantled. So they must have been pleased to hear Maliki say that Iraq “would not be a launchpad for any attacks on neighboring states”.)
3. The further agenda for the US and Iran talks, regarding Iraq.
This is huge. But most Bushites, as noted above, are probably still very reluctant to start to address it. This is an issue that is still very problematic and divisive within the administration. Gates, the uniformed military, and Rice are all now probably more or less united in realizing that,

    (a) Washington has to find a way to negotiate a substantial US troop withdrawal from Iraq, starting at the very latest in early 2008;
    (b) To do this, including Iran as one major party in the negotiation is unavoidable; and
    (c) In this context, a military attack on Iran is out of the questions; and probably, in addition, the current level of tension in the US-Iran relationship needs to be de-escalated.

Within the Republican Party– and indeed, within the broader US political elite, as well– the first of those three propositions now has considerable support. But its corollaries (b) and (c) still don’t, by any means, either in the GOP or in the broader political elite!
Hence, presumably, the need the Bushites see for extreme wariness in proceeding with this negotiation.
4. The US-Iranian agenda beyond Iraq.
As I mentioned above, the Bushites’ policies conflict harshly with those of Teheran in other areas, too, primarily regarding the nuclear issue and Arab-Israeli issues. It seems the “ground-rules” for today’s meeting in Baghdad had been firmly established by the US side as being that the discussions could only deal with matters directly related to Iraq.
Hey, who knows what the three of them might all have talked about inside the room there? Maybe we’ll never wholly know. But anyway, in his remarks after the meeting, K-Q stuck to the agreed script and didn’t mention any non-Iraq-related subject.
However, as I noted above, it will certainly be very hard for the US to get very much of what it wants to get from the Iranians regarding Iraq unless it is prepared to at least start dealing with some of Iran’s very sharp concerns in other fields.
Including, if Washington’s desire US really is for an orderly and substantial US troop withdrawal from Iraq– then what on earth is the Iranians’ interest in that?? Because now, the Iranians have the US troops in Iraq just exactly where they want them: dispersed, stretched out; vulnerable– 160,000-plus sitting ducks who are Teheran’s present guarantee that the US will undertake no military attack against Iran, and also, that it will rein the Israelis from trying anything similar.
Jimmy Carter only had to think about the fate of 52 US hostages to the will of the revolutionary Iranians. Now, George Bush has quite voluntarily and recklessly sent 3,000 times that number of hostages to the same fate…
No wonder that some administration insiders are now talking about a post-surge “Plan B” that would remove substantial numbers of the US troops from Iraq, and concentrate the remainder within only three or four, presumably very well-guarded perimeters.
But why should anyone believe the Iranians would be willing to let that happen so long as they continue to be subjected to all kinds of other hostile acts and declarations by the Americans?
So for the Iraq part of the US-Iran negotiation to work requires, at the very least, that the two sides reach agreement on a broader pact of ending direct hostilities between them.
How far-reaching might such an agreement be? We don’t know yet. But one thing that seems clear to me is that with every month that passes, the Iranian side of this complex balance is becoming stronger, and the US side weaker. Thus the longer the Bushites delay the conclusion of a non-agggression pact with Teheran, the broader will be the gains that Teheran ends up making.
5. Other regional and international actors.
Of course the US and Iran are not the only foreign (non-Iraqi) governments who have an intense interest in containing and ending the current state of insecurity in Iraq. In particular, I note that in the Arab world, all the Arab governments have a very strong interest in both

    (a) Seeing the restoration of political stability and public security inside Iraq, before Iraq-incubated Sunni extremism becomes an even more threatening force than it already is, for all of them; and
    (b) Not seeing the affairs of the Middle East being regulated entirely between these two non-Arab governments, in Washington and Teheran.

When I was in Egypt and Jordan in February, those were two very strong themes I heard again and again from my Arab friends and colleagues there– at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, and elsewhere.
(I note that Israel and Turkey also have certain interests regarding the the US-Iranian-Iraqi nexus. Turkey’s have mainly to do with the situation in the north, and can probably be fairly well accomodated in the context of improving US-Iran relations. Israel’s– as understood by the current government there– depend fairly strongly on there not being any improvement in US-Iran relations… Just the opposite! Tough luck for them, then, if they have to sit back and watch while US-Iran ties improve.)
Back to the Arab states, though. I guess a big question in my mind is whether goals (a) and (b) above can both be satisfactorily reached. I would say they could– provided the Iranians are prepared to do do some fairly clever and sure-footed diplomacy to set at ease the minds of Arab elites in places like Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.
Anyway, for any stabilization project inside Iraq to succeed will require the active involvement of, at the very least, the Saudis, Jordanians, and Syrians, all of whom have various fingers in the Iraqi pie at present.
… So, bottom line on the US-Iranian diplomacy: Yes, today’s meeting was a great breakthrough… But considerable further diplomatic work remains to be done.
Let’s all hope and pray the leaders in all the relevant capitals are prepared to do that work. As Winston Churchill once memorably said, “Jaw-jaw is better than war-war.” That was never truer than today. The lives of Iraqis (and American service members) will continue to be lost and devastated in quite unacceptable numbers until the diplomats– supported, I hope, by a swelling movement of citizens in all the countries concerned in favor of much more “jaw-jaw” and less “war-war”– can get their act together and definiteively defuse this very, very harmful situation.

US-Iran Talks — and a partnership?

US-Iran watchers are holding their collective breath in hopes that the talks between America and Iran bear fruit.
I’m guardedly impressed that the talks are happening. President Bush has belatedly adopted what he had previously rejected – a core recommendation of the Baker-Hamilton commission to talk to Iraq’s neighbors.
Is the switch borne of “realism” or “desperation?” And on whose part? Does it matter? It at least seems the insubordinate Cheney-Abrams-neocon wing of the Administration has been leashed – for now. Condi Rice also seems to have abandoned her previous nonsense about not wanting to talk to Iran, lest “diplomacy” might “legitimize” the Iranian system.
Similar observation for the Iranian side: It’s perhaps as difficult, if not more, for Iran to talk to the US, given that so much of the Revolution’s fury and subsequent dynamics have been driven by suspicions of American intentions and actions. The ghosts of 1953 still loom large. Repeatedly, for the past 20 years, Iranian figures who floated ideas to talk to America had their ears pinned back, beginning (it is long forgotten) when Iran’s current Supreme Leader (Ayatollah Khamenehi) once advocated such talks when he was President.
That Iran’s political “weather had changed” dramatically was confirmed when former Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati gave a long and extraordinarily candid interview ten days ago on Iran’s state TV channel. Now the foreign policy advisor to Leader Khamenehi, Velayati addressed concerns that America was both accusing Iran of causing trouble in Iraq and yet asking for Iran’s help in resolving Iraq’s troubles. Velayati also warned his compatriots of the “mirage” of seeing in the talks the solution to all of Iran’s problems, even as he also chided those Iranian “neocons” who saw dark conspiracies afoot — it’s not that “complicated.”
Bottom line: Velayati confirmed that Iran would participate in talks with America, provided they take “place between two counties in equal positions, without any preconditions, claims, rudeness or negative propaganda.”
US-Iran tensions of course have been running high from multiple sources, including nuclear questions, accusations of Iran supporting all manner of contagion in Iraq, the continued mysterious detentions of five Iranian “diplomats” by the US in Iraq (over Iraqi objections) and horrendous arrests of Iranian-American scholars in Iran.
Even more ominously, we have two US aircraft carrier battle groups again circling their rudders in the cramped Persian Gulf, Iran’s front door, a hair-trigger situation that even a curious editorial in the Kabul Times (friendly to America) characterized as “greatly alarming.”
Last Tuesday, ABC News ran a story claiming that President Bush had signed off on a CIA “black ops” order to destabilize Iran. I now wonder if this report was leaked by those wishing to sabotage the talks.
Unfazed, Iran is still coming to the table.
On Saturday, by contrast, the Boston Globe ran a scoop reporting that the US State Department had disbanded , a special unit that had been set up to orchestrate aggressive action against Iran and Syria – e.g. “regime change.” (Hat tip to Christiane in a thread below for catching this intriguing story for us.)
Yet despite these and other tensions, I share in the restrained optimism about the prospects for these talks. Both sides are well represented by multi-lingual diplomats, with rare experience with low-key contacts with the other side. America’s Ryan Crocker has already received considerable praise. Iran’s team includes its current Ambassador to Iraq, Hassan Kazemi Qomi, and two key Iran observers of Iraqi developments, Reza Amiri Moghaddam and Hossein Amir Abdolhayan.
So what’s to talk about?
I’ve already touched on a long list of tensions and problems needing discussion, even if confined just to Iraq. Yet I offer now an original essay by R.K. Ramazani that focuses on one one area where there should indeed be profound US-Iran common interest and cooperation: al-Qaeda.
I had a hand in pulling the quotes together for this essay, including several that to our knowledge have not appeared elsewhere in the Western media. America’s concerns about al-Qaeda should be obvious, even as many critics scorn Bush’s recent Coast Guard speech wherein he focused on al-Qaeda in Iraq as a key reason for us to stay in Iraq.
Lesser known in the west are the many reasons why Iran too has great reasons for bitterly opposing al-Qaeda.

“Abu Musab Zarqawi, the late al-Qaida operative responsible for the decapitation of Americans and other captives in Iraq, launched a merciless crusade against the Shia. Branding them as a “lurking snake,” a “malicious scorpion,” Zarqawi considered the Shia as an “insurmountable obstacle” to al-Qaeda’s global plans….
Zarqawi declared “total war” on the Shia and Iranians on Sept. 14, 2005. His minions catalyzed open sectarian Shia-Sunni warfare by destroying the Shia shrine at Samarra on Feb. 22, 2006. Since then, millions of Iraqis – of all sects – have been killed, exiled or driven from their homes….

Ayman al-Zawahiri, #2 in al-Qaeda and reputed chief strategist, has similarly taken aim at Shias and Iran:

Al-Zawahiri’s May 5th (2007) tape included an intensified al-Qaeda’s verbal attack on the Shia, Bush and Iran, in anticipation of U.S.-Iran talks. Apart from incendiary insults aimed at Shia belief and practice, al-Zawahiri chided Iran for having given up its slogan “America, the Great Satan” [for] the slogan “”America, the Closest Partner.

Talk about an insult (!) — yet one with more than a grain of truth in it, from al-Qaeda’s perspective.
Unreported in the west, Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad replied with a full-bore blast aimed at al-Zawahiri:

“Why do you, who want to kill Americans, kill innocent people and place bombs in the [Iraqi] market place?… On behalf of all the women and children in Asia, Europe and America, who have been victims of al-Qaida terrorists, I wish for you and your terrorist group hellfire, and would gladly sacrifice my life to annihilate you.”

Strange thing for an alleged closet ally of Al-Qaeda to say, eh?
Anyway, if I say so myself, do read the whole essay here.
And indeed, let’s hope, as the essay concludes, that “cooler heads will prevail.”
Fitting that today is Memorial Day in America. May that be a sobering reminder of the stakes.

When all else fails in Iraq,…

blame Iran.
It’s a tried, tired, and (not) true neocon formula, dating to the very first signs of trouble in Iraq after Saddam, four years ago. It’s the same ole’Allan Jackson country music tune “they” trot out, figuring Americans mostly still “love Jesus and talk to God,” but they just don’t know “the difference ‘n Iraq and Iran.”
According to the Voice of America, top US spinmeister General William B. Caldwell (the IVth) told a Baghdad press conference yesterday of familiar “charges” about Iranian weapons and training for Iraqi insurgents :

“We know that they are being in fact manufactured and smuggled into this country, and we know that training does go on in Iran for people to learn how to assemble them and how to employ them… We know that training has gone on as recently as this past month, from detainees debriefs.”

Caldwell clarified that the mentioned “training” of Iraqi insurgents was done by intelligence “surrogates” for Iran.
I wonder what “methods” were used on the “detainees” to get such desired evidence.
The material “evidence” trotted out this time was apparently different from previous briefings. Most media reports focused on weapons claimed to have been captured on Monday, after a “citizen tip” in a Sunni section of Baghdad named “Jihad” (sic). According to the NYTimes,

“The soldiers found a black Mercedes sedan and on its back seat, in plain view, a rocket of a type commonly made in China but repainted and labeled and sold by Iran, said Maj. Marty Weber, a master ordnance technician who joined General Caldwell at the briefing. In the trunk were mortar rounds marked “made in 2006….”
The weapons that the military officials said were of Iranian origin were labeled in English, which Major Weber said was typical of arms manufactured for international sale.”

How convenient!
Why didn’t the New York Times apply the laugh test to that one? Does this mean the Iranians “sold” them or “donated” them? By the way, I don’t recall those alleged Iranian arms in 2002 on the Karine-A headed for Palestine being labeled in English? eh? It is especially thoughtful of those “Iranians” to now mark weapons from Iran in English. It will save American “disinformation” specialists from having to stencil them in Persian or Arabic. (which of course they just wouldn’t do anyway, as my son the Lieutenant would insist…)
The real “headline” grabber though, the change off the broken record, came when US Major General Caldwell remarked,

“We have in fact found some cases recently where Iranian intelligence sources have provided to Sunni insurgent groups some support.”

He apparently didn’t elaborate. But “the quote” gave CNN’s perma-embed @ the Pentagon, Barbara “yes-sir” Starr, a breathless top-billing on CNN for the next eight hours (last I checked). All she could say was, “this is new…, really new.”
Yes, new – and bizarre.

Continue reading “When all else fails in Iraq,…”

Making Persian Gulf Security Durable (Ramazani)

FYI, here’s a recently published short essay by R.K. Ramazani, as I mentioned in discussions here several days ago.
Seeking to go beyond the immediate details of the recent UK-Iran dispute, Ramazani has three main objectives:
1. Provide historical context for understanding why bilateral conflict resolution in the Persian Gulf rests on fleeting sand. Bilateralism, unilateralism, and power balancing as approaches to maintaining Persian Gulf security have all broken down – and will inherently falter again:

“As long as Britain and America approach Gulf disputes by such means as playing regional powers against each other, by bullying tactics, by calls for regime change and by the threats of military strikes against Iran, there is little hope that Persian Gulf conflicts will ever be prevented in the future or that durable solutions can be found for the present ones, including the British-Iranian dispute today. As a result, the secure export of Gulf oil supplies to world markets will be threatened and the price of oil will soar beyond the capacity of the world economy to tolerate.

2. “Collective Security” is the only sustainable alternative.

“The real question, therefore, is whether Britain and the United States will be able to shake off their addiction to using force and embrace a comprehensive collective security system that would include the Persian Gulf states and major outside powers with high stakes in the region, including Britain and the United States, under the auspices of the United Nations.”
Short of that, Iran, as the major Persian Gulf state, will continue to resist British and American pressures. Its resistance to foreign bullying and pressures is rooted in a millennial and proud sense of glory and power in ancient times, in a deep-rooted sense of national identity and in a resentment of discrimination against the Shia, who are, today and in history, a minority in the larger Muslim world, by the Sunni majority.”

3. Security for the Persian Gulf also requires a “holistic” recognition that “the problems of the Persian Gulf are intertwined with the major conflicts of the broader Middle East and beyond.” Put differently, resolving conflicts in the Persian Gulf are incomplete without attending to conflict causes in the Eastern Mediterranean. That holds true both ways.

Continue reading “Making Persian Gulf Security Durable (Ramazani)”

UK sailors released…. “stunning” ?

(5:05 pm. update: Gary Sick’s G2k comments are now appended in the continuation)
Iran’s President Ahmadinejad has announced that “he” will be releasing the British sailors. The US airwaves are now filled with quotes characterizing this very welcome release announcement as a “stunning surprise.”
No doubt it was a shock to Ted Koppel, the former ABC News anchor. Just two days ago, Koppel’s NPR commentary had knowingly proclaimed that this current hostage drama was deja vu from 1979. Koppel speculated that the crisis wouldn’t be over until Tony Blair was out of office. Koppel must be missing his Night-Line gig.
Surely I’m not the only one not surprised that this crisis is being unwound. After all, the world’s stock markets rallied yesterday (Tuesday) and oil prices plunged in anticipation that something positive was in the works.
A good thing too – I was getting nauseous from all the plausible to bizarre theories purporting to explain which Iranian faction was behind the capture, what their agendas were, and how the crisis presumably was playing into the hands of Iran’s confrontational hardliners. (never mind the “regime change” ideologues in the US and Israel) Even Juan Cole in Salon published a version of such interpretations.
A few lonely voices had contemplated that the crisis might have been consciously provoked by the British, or that the situation was recklessly stoked when Blair proclaimed he was “utterly confident” over the facts of the original British operation. It became a mutual TV propaganda war. (and the US mainstream media largely bought the official British version, “hook, line, and sinker.”)
I don’t know yet which account to believe on the immediate catalysts. I was more concerned that the “neocons” on both sides were painting themselves into corners from which a resolution would be supremely difficult to reach.
Over the past few days, however, close observers could see a series of encouraging signs from both London and Tehran suggesting that creative language was forming that could indeed be acceptable to both sides. From the British side, there was less blather about “absolute certainty” that their sailors had been on the Iraqi side of a maritime border line – a line that in fact does NOT exist in treaty form.
Richard Schoffield and Craig Murray were quite “spot on,” even as their early voices of sanity were pointedly ignored by most of the mainstream media. The problem at hand is rather “simple,” as Schoffield told the BBC over a week ago,

“Iran and Iraq have never agreed to a boundary of their territorial waters. There is no legal definition of the boundary beyond the Shatt al-Arab.”

That didn’t stop the New York Times (for starters) from reprinting the British “fake” map in their pages — with no indication that the boundary line indicated was not at all settled.
Even the British naval commander of the operation, Commodore Nick Lambert, had carefully observed in the early hours after the detention of his sailors that,

“There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that they were in Iraqi territorial waters. Equally, the Iranians may well claim that they were in their territorial waters. The extent and definition of territorial waters in this part of the world is very complicated.”

Ambassador Murray was widely vilified for pointing out that it was ill-advised for Blair to have been “utterly confident” that Britain’s ships were on the Iraqi side of a “fake” line. Yet a week later, Murray noted that the border’s unsettled nature had become widely admitted within British foreign policy decision-making circles and even in the British media.
I suspect that this key shift “back” in British rhetoric contributed to today’s news.
From the Iranian side, there was recognition that the crisis was only increasing Iran’s woes in the international community. The public parading of the sailors, however relatively “different” from the images of Abu Ghraib, Gitmo, etc, was also reviving ghastly images from the US hostage crisis of 1979. And few Iranian leaders wanted to re-live that isolation.
President Ahmadinejad is but one spoke in Iran’s complex decision-making wheel. The hub of that consensus forming wheel is Iran’s “Leader” – Ali Khamenehi. No doubt Khamenehi, in consultation with veteran key players in the top inner circles (e.g. Rafsanjani, Khatami, Velayati), decided that the boil had to be lanced.
Ali Larijani, the Iranian who gave the encouraging interview with Britain’s Channel 4 on Monday, chairs Iran’s Supreme National Security Council – a body that reports directly to Khamenehi – not Ahmadinejad. When asked if Iran would put the sailors on trial, Larijani replied,

“Definitely our priority would not be trial… Our priority is to solve the problem through diplomatic channels. We are not interested in having this issue get further complicated.”

Such conciliatory comments were welcomed by Britain.
While AN may have been granted the privilege to announce the pending release of the British sailors, the decision was hardly his alone to make.
Hats off then to the “grown ups” in both the British and Iranian foreign policy teams. Both sides surely realized that neither country had an interest in the sailors’ plight turning into a “hot” war in the Gulf.
The challenge now is to craft mechanisms to insure that such incidents don’t recur.
If a boundary is at long last to be agreed upon between Iran and Iraq, both in the Shatt al-Arab river, as well as in the territorial sea, it cannot be imposed from the outside. Instead, it will have to be achieved bilaterally between Iran and Iraq, and supported multilaterally by the interested international community.
All interested parties should also “fix minds” on dropping “gun boat diplomacy” in favor of “collective security” arrangements, beginning with all eight littoral states of the Persian Gulf. As is so often forgotten from the outside, local security is relatively more “vital” to the states that “live” there. It’s their front yards! As my mentor (Ramazani) long ago wrote, they all need to get their oil and gas securely to world markets, “they can’t drink it.”
Yet the Gulf’s littoral states also have the curse and luxury of the entire world also seeing their fragile waterway as critically important. Why not then dare to imagine more sustainable security arrangements as guaranteed through the UN Security Council rather than via the gunboats or aircraft carriers of any one outside imperial power?
Update (as of 5:05 pm EST)
Gary Sick (now a respected Professor at Columbia U., a key Carter NSC member during the hostage crisis, and a former Navy Captain) made the following 8 points on the “Iran-UK contretemps” via his closed Gulf 2000 forum (and which he just indicated can be quoted publicly) I disagree with him on some points, agree in most others. (Guess which?) See continuation:

Continue reading “UK sailors released…. “stunning” ?”

The US and Iran, in Iraq

One week ago today we were sitting in the lobby of our hotel in Amman,
Jordan, talking with the very smart and well-informed Middle East
analyst Joost Hiltermann about the interactions that US power now has
in and over Iraq with Iraq’s much weightier eastern neighbor,
Iran.  (Hiltermann has worked on Iraq-related issues for many
years, including for several years now as the senior Iraq analyst for
the International Crisis Group.)

He said,

Well, the US and Iran agree on two
things inside today’s Iraq– but they disagree on one key thing.

What they agree on, at least until now, is the unity of Iraq, and need
for democracy or at least some form of majority rule there.

What they disagree on is the continued US troop presence there.  Because the US basically now wants
to be able to withdraw those troops, and Iran wants them to stay!

He conjectured that the main reason Iran wants the US troops to stay in
Iraq is because they are deployed there, basically, as sitting ducks
who would be extremely vulnerable to Iranian military retaliation in
the event of any US (or Israeli) military attack on Iran.  They
are, in effect, Iran’s best form of insurance against the launching of
any such attack.

I have entertained that conjecture myself, too, on numerous occasions
in the past.  So I was interested that Hiltermann not only voiced
it, but also framed it in such an elegant way.  (For my part, I am
slightly less convinced than he is that the decisionmakers in the Bush
administration at this point
are clear that they want the US troops out of Iraq… But I think they
are headed toward that conclusion, and that the developments in the
region will certainly continue to push them that way.)

From this point of view, we might conclude that the decisionmakers in
Teheran– some of whom are strategic thinkers with much greater
experience and even technical expertise than anyone in the current Bush
administration– would be seeing the possibility of “allowing” the US
to withdraw its troops from Iraq only within the context of the kind of
“grand bargain” that Teheran seeks.  The first and overwhelmingly
most important item in that “grand bargain” would be that Washington
credibly and irrevocably back off from any thought of pursuing a
strategy of regime change inside Iran or from any threats of military
force against it.

Under this bargain, Washington would need to agree, fundamentally, that
despite serious continuing disagreements in many areas of policy, it
would deal with the regime that exists in Teheran– as in earlier
decades it dealt with the regime that existed in the Soviet Union–
rather than seeking to overthrow it.  Teheran might well also ask
for more than that– including some easing of the US campaign against
it over the nuclear issue, etc.  But I believe there is no way the
mullahs in Teheran could settle for any less than a basic normalization
of working relations with Washington– that would most likely be
exemplified by the restoration of normal diplomatic relations between
the two governments– in return for “allowing” the US troops to
withdraw from Iraq.

There are numerous paradoxes here. Not only has Washington’s wide
distribution of its troops throughout the Iraq has become a strategic
liability, rather than an asset, but now the heirs of the same Iranian
regime that stormed the US Embassy in the 1970s and violated all the
norms of diplomatic protocol by holding scores of diplomats as hostages
there are the ones who are, essentially, clamoring for the restoration
of diplomatic relations with Washington.

… Meantime, however, a great part of the steely, pre-negotiation
dance of these two wilful powers is being played out within the borders
of poor, long-suffering Iraq.  For the sake of the Iraqis, I hope
Washington and Teheran resolve their issues and move to the normal
working relationship of two fully adult powers as soon as possible.

One last footnote here.  I do see some intriguing possibilities
within the Bushites’ repeated use of the mantra that “All options are
still on the table” regarding Iran.  Generally, that has been
understood by most listeners (and most likely intended by its utterers) to mean
that what is “on the table of possibilities” is all military options– up to
and perhaps even including nuclear military options, which the Bushites
have never explicitly taken off the table with regard to Iran.

But why should we not also interpret “all options” to include also all diplomatic options? 
That would certainly be an option worth pursuing.

    (This post has been cross-posted to the Nation’s blog, The Notion.)