Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Cracking Open the Diplomatic Door

I don't want to be too optimistic about this, but if today's news is any indication of a small cracking open of a diplomatic door, I am glad. Iran's National Security Sectretary Ali Larijani said that Iran will participate in regional talks on Iraq.

Here's an excerpt from the New York Times article:

WASHINGTON, Feb. 27 — American officials said Tuesday that they had agreed to hold the highest-level contact with the Iranian authorities in more than two years as part of an international meeting on Iraq.

The discussions, scheduled for the next two months, are expected to include Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her Iranian and Syrian counterparts.

The announcement, first made in Baghdad and confirmed by Ms. Rice, that the United States would take part in two sets of meetings among Iraq and its neighbors, including Syria and Iran, is a shift in President Bush’s avoidance of high-level contacts with the governments in Damascus and, especially, Tehran.

Critics of the administration have long said that it should do more to engage its regional rivals on a host of issues, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Lebanon. That was the position of the Iraq Study Group, the high level commission that last year urged direct, unconditional talks that would include Iran and Syria.

While the newly scheduled meetings may not include direct negotiations between the United States and Iran, and are to focus strictly on stabilizing Iraq rather than other disputes, they could crack open a door to a diplomatic channel.

Click here for more....

And this, with more context from Iran, is from the Stratfor Morning Intelligence Brief...

Geopolitical Diary: The Lead-up to Public U.S.-Iranian Negotiations

Three noteworthy events took place on Tuesday that have significant implications for U.S.-Iranian dealings over Iraq.

First, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei announced his appointments to the Expediency Council (EC) -- the country's highest political arbitration body, led by Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Second, Rafsanjani issued a statement warning his country not to provoke the United States. He added that, at a great financial cost to itself, Washington invaded Afghanistan and Iraq and achieved nothing but serving Tehran's interests, and "therefore they are angry. So we must be more alert. They are like a wounded tiger, and we must not ignore this."

Third, the Bush administration announced it will send representatives to Baghdad in late March and early April to attend two international conferences in which Iran also will participate. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the United States hopes Iran will take advantage of the opportunity "to work for peace and stability in the region." Furthermore, a State Department spokesman hinted that U.S. officials could hold bilateral talks with the Iranians on the sidelines of the conferences.

Stratfor repeatedly has written about U.S.-Iranian back-channel dealings over Iraq, as well as the need for both sides to bring these communications into the public realm. While direct public engagement would not damage Iran's clerical regime much on the domestic front, such negotiations certainly pose a significant quandary for the Bush administration. Moreover, the United States has said many times that Iran must verifiably suspend its nuclear enrichment before such negotiations can take place.

However, as the security situation in Iraq continues to worsen -- an immediate concern for the United States and a long-term worry for Iran -- the United States has been forced to find alternative means of talking to the Iranians. Instead of jumping into a bilateral engagement, Washington has decided to begin the process in a multilateral setting, which could pave the way for direct dealings between the two foes. This also allows the United States to allay the concerns of its Arab allies, who are fearful that U.S.-Iranian accommodations could hurt their interests.

Tehran has begun preparing for the coming public negotiations with Washington. Rafsanjani's remarks are part of the efforts of his pragmatic conservative faction to create a consensus within the regime on how to deal with the United States. Rafsanjani, who has been a player in Iran in various key capacities since the founding of the republic, is very familiar with U.S. behavior and is therefore trying to get the ultraconservative elements within the regime to realize that they are overplaying their hand and risking the gains Iran has made thus far.

Another key development in Iran is Khamenei's appointments. The EC was created by a constitutional amendment in 1988 in order to resolve differences between parliament and the Guardians Council (a clerical institution with the power of legislative oversight that also is charged with vetting candidates for public office). In addition, the EC was to advise the supreme leader. Following the domination of the executive and legislative branches by ultraconservatives, Khamenei gave Rafsanjani the power to oversee all three branches of the government and to implement a 20-year plan drafted by the EC.

Khamenei's appointments were both an effort to consolidate the hold of pragmatic conservatives like Rafsanjani and an attempt to get both factions on the same page. To that end, Khamenei appointed the current heads of the three branches of government, as well as the Guardians Council jurists, to the EC. He also mandated that every minister must attend EC meetings when the agenda contains items related to that Cabinet member's portfolio. Additionally, in an effort to make sure parliament is represented, he has required that the heads of parliamentary committees attend the meetings.

It appears that, in their own ways, both the United States and Iran are preparing for the much-awaited public negotiations over Iraq. However, as we have seen in the past, a lot can go wrong before the actual meetings take place -- and even once they begin, an accommodation over Iraq is far from assured.


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