Why the U.S. and Iran Will Talk

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The news that the U.S. and Iran plan to hold talks on mutual concerns in Iraq seemed somewhat incongruous, to say the least, coming at the end of a week during which President Bush had reiterated that Tehran was part of an Axis of Evil, Secretary of State Rice had chided Iran as the "central banker of terrorism," and Washington's man at the UN, John Bolton, had spoken of a threat from Iran akin to "9/11 with nuclear weapons." Yet within hours of Iran's national security chief announcing on Thursday that Tehran was open for talks on Iraq, the Bush Administration made clear that it was, too. Both sides continued to trade barbs in public — the Iranians insist they're simply going to tell the Americans to end the "occupation" of Iraq; the U.S. side frames the talks as an opportunity to read Iran the riot act over "meddling" in Iraq.

But if that was all they had to say to one another, they could just as easily do it via the megaphone of the media. The premise of direct talks is each side's recognition that the other has a legitimate (or, least, unavoidable) interest and role in shaping events in Iraq — and that the interests of both sides can be better served by coordinating their interventions. And in light of the mounting sectarian political tension, each side has good reason to establish channels of communication for crisis management.

What's in it for the U.S.?

The reason for Washington's eagerness to talk is simple: As much as it would prefer not to admit it, the U.S. will struggle to achieve its goals in Iraq without Iranian cooperation, because Tehran retains far more influence than Washington does over the Shi'ite religious parties that have emerged dominant from Iraq's democratic elections. Right now, the political process in Iraq remains stalled by the failure among its elected leaders to agree on a unity government, as the Shi'ites push back against Washington's urging to do more to accommodate Sunni concerns.

If Washington were to act on its threat of withdrawing support from the new government in order to squeeze concessions from the Shi'ites, the Shi'ites in turn might look to draw Tehran into a more active role in the country. But if the U.S. could find agreement with Iran over the principles of power sharing in Baghdad, Tehran's help in delivering the Shi'ites could prove decisive. At minimum, Iran's help could be indispensable in restraining the Shi'ites in the face of provocative sectarian attacks by al-Qaeda in Iraq.

The Bush administration had, in fact, some time ago authorized its Baghdad ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, to seek talks with Iran about the situation in Iraq.

What's in it for Iran?

Initially, in public at least, Tehran rebuffed Washington's efforts to hold talks about Iraq. The regime may have been comfortable in a situation where the U.S. needed it more than it needed the U.S., and it may have believed that the situation in Iraq gave it a certain leverage in dealing with the U.S. on other points of contention, most notably the nuclear issue.

Iran's National Security Council head, Ali Larijani, said Thursday that Iran had agreed to talk in response to a plea by its most powerful ally in Baghdad, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the largest party in the Shi'ite bloc. Hakim, caught in the maelstrom of his country's rising sectarian tension, certainly has an interest in achieving a measure of accord between his longtime backers in Tehran and the U.S.; he knows better than most that the survival of the political system which has handed him so much power still depends on the U.S. military presence.

But it is not just the pleadings of its Shi'ite brethren in Iraq that has convinced Tehran to come to the bargaining table. The collapse of the new Iraqi political order into civil war would threaten the influence Iran has gained in Iraq through the workings of democracy, and could even draw Iran into a damaging regional conflict. Then, of course, there is the nuclear issue: As its case comes before the UN Security Council, Iran has an incentive to portray itself as a responsible geopolitical actor, helping to stabilize a neighbor that has become a fount of Middle East instability.

So, will they talk about nukes?

No, or not officially, anyway. Both sides need to avoid appearing as if they're buckling to pressure from the other on the nuclear question, and the official spin is that the nuclear issue is a matter for other forums involving other parties such as the Europeans. But if the two sides do manage to sit down and discuss a matter as strategically important as Iraq is to both — and if they do manage to achieve some measure of accord on that issue — it will mark an historic breakthrough in public engagement between the U.S. and the Islamic Republic. And that would certainly go a long way toward transforming, over time, the climate of hostility between Washington and Tehran that continues to cloud the nuclear issue.