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Time to talk

01 April 2007

When the US and Iran sat face to face in Baghdad last March, this did not signify the start of bilateral negotiations. Rather, international diplomacy was refocusing on what has become the centre of regional insecurity in the world: Iraq. The meeting did of course not happen out of the blue. In a sense, it was a direct continuation of several meetings held by states neighbouring Iraq that commenced immediately after the US intervention in Iraq four years ago. These meetings have always functioned as a consultation mechanism and have also been good for confidence-building. Needless to say, the EU supported this process and on some occasions even participated as an observer. Two elements, however, were missing: American involvement and Iraqi ownership. Whatever the long-term results of this meeting will be, the Iraqi government’s position is now strengthened in the region and vis-à-vis the US due to its successful insistence on American and Iranian participation.
It goes without saying that discussing Iraq will not solve outstanding problems between Iran and the US, Iran and the international community and Iran and its Arab neighbours. Yet focusing on Iraq should pave the way for constructive policies in dealing with the Islamic Republic. Times have changed: Tehran is currently relatively weakened whereas the position of the US seems to have been relatively strengthened. Washington would never have engaged in talks with Tehran as a supplicant.
Politically, it is the nuclear issue that in the end limits most of Tehran’s room for manoeuvre. Contrary to the expectations of sceptics, international relations have worked, as Tehran was not able to divide the international community over its nuclear programme. Tehran faces a EU3+3 (or P5+1) position which is as marked by patience as it is by the resolve to bring Iran back to the negotiating table on pain of sanctions. And the international community has not needed to press for fully-fledged sanctions; incremental steps alone are already working as they put the Iranian economy under tangible pressure.
But regionally, too, Iran’s position is less strong than it was previously. Initially Tehran successfully accrued advantages and promotion in its regional status thanks to American foreign policy, which destroyed the Taliban and the Baathist regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq. But it was following the free elections held in Iraq in 2005 and in the Palestinian Authority in 2006 that the perceptions of Iranian power changed. Needless to say, elections were the only means of bringing Tehran’s allies, who in both cases were victorious, to power. But then Arab diplomacy intervened in order to simultaneously limit Iran’s high profile in the region and put the brakes on the American policy of democratisation – without, of course, expressing any overt criticism of the US. It was successful in both endeavours and the international community’s positive perception of elections in the Middle East gave way to fears of a ‘Shiite crescent’. The ill-timed execution of Saddam Hussein diminished Iran’s prestige in the eyes of the ‘Arab Street’ and Muslim public opinion – Muslims in other countries tend to view the Iranians as ‘heretic’ Persians rather than as champions of Islam. And, finally, the Saudi-sponsored Mecca Agreement has wooed Hamas away from Iran (which has in any case never been its main financial sponsor) and brought it back into the Sunni-Arab fold. Ever since, the leaders of authoritarian Sunni regimes have been hailed as moderate Arabs – not a bad deal for the nations that gave birth to Al Qaida and its associated networks.
Iran’s weakness is America’s strength. Bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan and faced with Iranian defiance, the US were for a while relatively weakened against Iran. However, the US have turned the tables on Iran by embracing a multilateral approach, thus putting the ball back into Iran’s court. In May 2006 Condoleezza Rice offered direct talks on condition that Iran stop its enrichment activities – something Iran must do anyway according to a UNSC resolution. Furthermore, America’s sheer military power and the fact that the Bush Administration remains unwilling to rule out the option of a military strike against Iran also puts the US in a strong position vis-à-vis Tehran. This is not to say that a military option would be justified, let alone a wise decision. But the fact that Tehran is getting increasingly nervous about this possibility highlights the obvious truth that, even weakened, the US are still much stronger than Iran – at least militarily.
But resolve against Iran is only meaningful when it is linked to the will for serious engagement. This is precisely the attitude that has been demonstrated by the EU with regard to the nuclear issue: it has stood firm on its international commitments and at the same time offered the Iranians a set of positive incentives, categorically ruling out any means other than diplomacy for the resolution of the Iranian crisis. That being said, at the end of the day the vital issue is whether Iran suspends enrichment and negotiates with the EU3+3 or not. For the EU, because it cannot forego its consensual position of the last four years; for the US, because this is the minimum requirement for the Administration to officially engage in talks with Iran; and for Iran because, domestically and perhaps also regionally, a cessation of enrichment activities before negotiation would be seen as humiliation.
Iran’s negative attitude towards the offer made by the EU (and later the EU3/3) can easily be understood against the background of the poisoned US-Iranian relationship and the increasingly bellicose talk in Washington about military action against the Islamic Republic and regime change. This is where the Iraqi conference comes in, as both sides are interested in stabilising Iraq. There have even been precedents for American-Iranian cooperation without formal agreement, as happened when Iranian cooperation was needed to end the civil war in Kurdistan or over Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002. It is time to repeat that exercise in good faith and to create some measure of trust. In the meantime, the EU has kept the door open for a negotiated solution, and will continue to do so.