A Significant Breakthrough?
May 28 marked a significant date in the stalled, yet tumultuous state of Tehran-Washington relations. Almost three decades of official silence finally ended in a conference featuring direct bilateral talks.
But, as with almost any other development in the Middle East, this groundbreaking dialogue was not lacking in ironic historical context. A rough chronology of events leading up to the talks is as follows:
On Feb. 11, 1979 Iran's revolution against the United States-backed Shah was victorious. On Nov. 4, 1979 a group of militant Iranian university students took over the United States embassy, holding Americans hostage for 444 days. Washington broke formal ties with Tehran. On Sept. 22, 1980 Iraq, with Saddam Hussein being supported by the United States, invaded Iran. The two neighbors fought for eight years in a war that claimed approximately a million lives.
During that time, Iranian demonstrators chanted "Down with the USA" as well as "Death to Saddam." Decades later, Baghdad-Washington relations soured and on March 20, 2003 American-led coalition forces marched into Iraq to topple Saddam's regime. He was arrested on April 9, 2003 and hanged on Dec. 30, 2006. On May 28, the aforementioned meeting took place between representatives from Washington and Tehran in Baghdad; the first such face-to-face negotiations in almost 27 years.
Ironically, the purpose of this unprecedented meeting was centered around bringing stability to the one country that both arch-rivals have fought — Iraq.
The discussions took place at a time that has been described as the most critical period in the relations between the two countries, while weighty accusations go back and forth between Tehran and Washington daily.
Washington accuses Iran of being the leading state sponsor of terrorism in the world, arming insurgents in Iraq and seeking to develop nuclear weapons. Tehran charges Washington with conducting espionage operations in Iran, seeking a regime change.
Iran also accuses the United States of improperly seizing five Iranians in Iraq. Washington, meanwhile, has complained about the detention of several Iranian-Americans in Iran in recent weeks.
Ambassadors of the two countries in Iraq, Ryan Crocker and Hassan Kazemi Qomi, bore the heavy burden of breaking the ice during four hours of talks behind closed doors. After the discussions, they both described the meeting as "positive." Qomi also stated that the two countries would continue negotiations in less than a month.
Both Iran and the United States had long shunned direct contact, but in the face of major problems in Iraq Washington is fervently searching for ways to stabilize the country, where Tehran has emerged as a major player since the 2003 American-led invasion. On the other side, Tehran is caught within a United Nations sanctions regime due to its ongoing nuclear program, and is seeking a way out.
Now, the main question is whether this rare meeting can affect the decades-long state of frozen relations between the two countries.
Some of the conservative, and more notably neo-conservative, figures in the United States believe that the conference was merely a waste of time.
"The decision on the part of the United States to offer the Iranian authorities yet another chance to show that they are ready to contribute to peace and to order in Iraq rather than violence and disorder is unwise. We will see no change in the Iranian position, which has been to make matters worse in Iraq," said Richard Perle, a prominent neo-conservative, in an interview with Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty. Perle is a former Pentagon official who had lobbied forcefully for a United States invasion of Iraq
Conversely, there are some who believe that the talks are not only helpful, but the only way out of Washington's confounding situation in the region. Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for Defense and Foreign Policy Studies at the Cato Institute is among the liberal scholars who are of such a mindset.
"The United States is in a difficult position right now in that the current U.S. policy in Iraq simply has not worked at all, and I think we are beginning to cast about for some alternatives. Iran can be at least modestly helpful in that regard as long as we recognize that Iranian influence in Iraq is going to be inevitably much, much stronger than it was before," said Carpenter to the American-funded Persian-language Radio Farda. "We no longer have Iraq as a strategic counterweight to Iran. Those days are gone and we have to face the reality that the big gainer from the Iraq war is Iran."
Carpenter, who has been a critic of the current United States policy and a supporter of engaging Iran in direct talks, believes that even "minor progress" in this case is a big gain for Washington, blaming the Bush administration for their rigid stance towards Iran.
"Everyone hopes for a breakthrough in the relationship [with Iran] in the way that the United States had with China in 1970's under president Nixon," he said. "But that is very unlikely in this case. We do not have anyone in the American government, certainly not in the White House, who is willing to reverse the policy in the way that president Nixon did with regards to China."
Carpenter believes that the Shiite Islamic Republic of Iran will help Washington in Iraq, as its interests are tied to strengthening an effective Shiite government in Baghdad.
Nevertheless, accusations still continued minutes after the doors in Baghdad closed behind the two envoys.
Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki said that the negotiations could succeed if Washington adopts a "realistic approach" to problems in Iraq, which means, according to Tehran, admitting a "failed policy" in Iraq and the region.
Ambassador Crocker, on the other side, insisted that Iran should end what the White House calls its "support for militants."
However, both envoys indicated that a broad policy agreement had taken place.
"Given the recent tensions, the very fact that the occasion of the meeting between the two countries' representatives have not included any aggression and have ended up peacefully, is on its own a promising step between Tehran and Washington," said Houchang Hassan Yari, professor of International Relations at Canada's Royal Military College.
Sources stress that the icebreaker conference did not include discussions about direct bilateral issues such as the Iranian nuclear program. Officials from both nations had previously stated that the meeting would focus solely on the situation in Iraq.
So as it turns out, Iraq is no longer considered a separate problem for the two countries but has become a mutual security issue, to which an effective solution could definitely lead into a more encompassing phase of transatlantic diplomacy.
Time will tell whether that occurs, but for now Tehran and Washington have just officially begun to chat on an issue of mutual concern.
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