Talking to Iran — or Talking War?

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(l. to r.)Denny C. Cantrell / AFP / Getty; Vahid Salemi / AP

The USS Nimitz in the Gulf of Oman; Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

When representatives of the U.S. and Iran meet in Baghdad on Monday, it will mark the first substantive encounter between the two sides since before the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Officially, the agenda is supposed to include security in Iraq, avoiding the nuclear standoff between Iran and the West, and other contentious issues.

But the talks are occurring in an atmosphere of mutual suspicion, in which confrontational invective is growing. Just days after the U.S.-Iran meeting, a group of powerful neo-conservatives —including some of those who were most active in promoting the invasion of Iraq — plan to gather for an all-expenses-paid conference entitled "Confronting The Iranian Threat: The Way Forward" at a luxurious resort in the Bahamas. Many of the 30 or so invited guests have been strident critics of Iran and hard-liners on maintaining the U.S. presence in Iraq. They include six current Bush Administration officials — among them U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Zalmay Khalilzad and his wife, Undersecretary of State Paula Dobriansky — as well as think-tank academics, conservative opinion columnists and Uri Lubrani, the top adviser on Iran to Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Though it is not clear how many will actually attend the conference, a spokesman for the organizers, the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the meeting was intended "to bring together a wide range of experts to examine all options for dealing with Iran."

President Bush himself identified some of those options this week in response to reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that Iran is expanding its uranium enrichment capabilities in defiance of U.N. Security Council demands that it freeze that activity. IAEA chief Dr. Mohammed ElBaradei also noted that Iran was three to eight years away from having the capability to produce a nuclear weapon. "My view is that we need to strengthen our sanction regime," Bush said, adding that he and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had discussed plans to beef up punitive U.N. measures.

[TIME's Joe Klein also reports that Vice President Cheney is actively promoting military action against Iran, despite such a course of action being unanimously opposed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff at a meeting with President Bush last December.]

Meanwhile, two longtime Bush supporters among the neo-conservatives — an ideological pressure group with advocates in and out of government — have revived public calls for military action against Iran. Norman Podhoretz, editor of the journal Commentary, authored an article in the magazine's June 2007 issue, "The Case for Bombing Iran." And former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton told Fox News this week that "the only recourse is to dramatically ratchet up the economic and political pressure on Iran and keep open the option of regime change or even military force."

The US put on a major show of that military force this week, as a U.S. Navy flotilla carrying 17,000 sailors and Marines moved into the Persian Gulf. Carrier strike groups led by the U.S.S. John C. Stennis and the U.S.S. Nimitz were joined by the amphibious assault ship U.S.S. Bonhomme Richard and its strike group. Planes from the two carriers and the assault ship are to carry out exercises, while ships run submarine, mine and other maneuvers.

Washington may also be moving to ratchet up covert pressure on Tehran. ABC News reported this week that President Bush has given the CIA a green light to conduct non-lethal covert operations against Iran using propaganda, disinformation and the squeezing of Iran's international banking transactions.

The Iranians, meanwhile, hold several U.S. citizens as undeclared hostages under various pretexts, including allegations of spying. And the U.S. continues to hold a group of Iranians seized by U.S. troops in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Erbil in January. The U.S. accuses them of being members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard engaging in subversion in Iraq; Tehran says they are diplomats detained without justification.

Given these rising tensions, what hope is there for a successful diplomatic exchange between the U.S. and Iran next week in Baghdad? "There are powerful forces pushing the two parties into these talks," says Dr. William Samii, a longtime Iran specialist currently with the Center for Naval Analyses, a federally funded non-profit. "But there may be even stronger pressures that will make agreement difficult to reach."

One of Iran's top negotiators, Ali Larijani, also seemed to hedge carefully when asked if the talks would focus exclusively on Iraq, as called for by the U.S., or whether they might also include other points of contention. "Talking with the U.S. over issues related to Iran is not an impossible matter," Iran's state news agency, IRNA, quoted him as saying. "However, this depends on the subject matter."

"The talks will be held upon the request of our Iraqi friends and for the sake of assisting the people of Iraq," Larjani added. "We will not spare any efforts to restore peace and stability to Iraq and support the country's territorial integrity."

Regardless of the tensions that overshadow next week's U.S.-Iran parley, there's no question that each side stands to benefit from some kind of a deal. The new Iraq strategy developed by General David Petraeus, the American commander, and U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker stresses political accomodation inside Iraq. That is based on their judgment that neither the Iraqi insurgents nor the powerful Shi'ite militias can be readily defeated by the U.S. on the battlefield. Iran's active cooperation, or at least tacit support, appears crucial to that strategy. As for Iran, its leaders have said they would like to see the U.S. withdraw — perhaps not immediately, but in the relatively near future. The most obvious way to reconcile those U.S. and Iranian goals would be for both parties to work together at stabilizing security in Iraq long enough for President Bush or his successor to justify bringing the troops home.