Iran Reacts Favorably to the Baker-Hamilton Plan

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Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad waves to the crowd during a public gathering in the city of Maku, northwest of the capital, Tehran.

The Iranian government has responded more positively than the Bush Administration has to the Iraq Study Group's proposal for talks between the two. And government sources in Tehran tell TIME that this reflects a sincere and calculated desire among the Iranian leadership for improved relations with Washington.

Responding to the Baker-Hamilton report's proposal that Washington move quickly to engage Iran on talks over stabilizing Iraq, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki dangled an offer of cooperation in a statement published by an Iranian news agency. "Iran will support any policies returning security, stability and territorial integrity to Iraq," he said, "and considers withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and leaving security to the Iraqi government as the most suitable option." In an interview on Al Jazeera, Mottaki added that if the U.S. needs an "honorable way out of Iraq," and Iran "is in a position to help."

President Bush, by contrast, appeared to rebuff the suggestion, insisting that Iran would have to suspend its uranium-enrichment program before it could talk to the U.S. about Iraq. And the response from many U.S. lawmakers questioning Iran's motives in Iraq underscored the continued taboo in Washington over dealing openly with the Islamic Republic.

Three Iranian sources — a government official and two figures close to government policymakers — tell TIME that Mottaki's statement is reflective of a solid consensus among the regime's foreign-policy decision makers that restoring relations with the U.S. is in Iran's best interests. "If tomorrow the U.S. seriously — and I emphasize the word seriously — tried to engage Iran, in a way that accepted the 1979 Iranian revolution and engaged Iran in a respectful atmosphere, then Iran would welcome the chance to address mutual concerns," said one of the sources, a prominent expert on U.S.-Iranian relations.

TIME's sources offered a glimpse into the internal Iranian debate on the issue, which involves Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Supreme National Security Council headed by Ali Larijani, as well as other senior Iranian officials. While radical elements inside the regime remain adamantly opposed to dealing with the "Great Satan," the sources said, a strong consensus has nonetheless developed among Iran's ruling conservatives in favor of talks with the U.S. The basis of this consensus is a belief that improved relations with the U.S. would serve Iranian interests on a variety of fronts, including Iraq, Afghanistan, oil production, foreign investment and Iran's nuclear energy program. Iran's definition of talks, the sources emphasize, is not simply an American harangue about Iran's policies, but discussions that include Iranian concerns about the U.S., including sanctions, frozen Iranian assets, future American military plans for the region and Washington's support for anti-government groups.

Some Iranian leaders and officials, including President Ahmadinejad, also believe that Iran now has the opportunity to deal with Washington from a position of strength, for the first time since the 1979 revolution. The sources say that this assessment is based on a perception that the U.S. is stuck in quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan, while Iran's influence in the region and throughout the Muslim world is expanding. These officials see further evidence of Iran's advantage in the difficulties the U.S. continues to encounter in winning support for U.N. tough sanctions over Iran's nuclear program. The sources say that Iranian officials believe that to open a serious dialogue with the U.S. in these circumstances would significantly enhance Iran's international prestige and regional influence.

Iran is also increasingly concerned about the need to stabilize Iraq, say TIME's sources, in contrast to U.S. charges that Tehran is fueling instability there. The sources indicate that Iranian officials essentially agree with the Baker-Hamilton conclusion that while Iran gains an advantage from having the U.S. mired in Iraq, its long-term interests are not served by Iraqi chaos and territorial disintegration. "Iran would love to see the situation stabilized in Iraq," says a source. "That is a very important concern for Iran. But Iran doesn't want to see the U.S. declare victory, in case the Americans would like to attack Iran next." The sources say that among the ways Iran could be helpful is to try to persuade groups representing the Shi'ite majority and Kurds in Iraq to be more conciliatory to the Sunni minority whose grievances fuel the insurgency.

As evidence of Iran's readiness, the sources say, Larijani earlier this year publicly accepted an offer made by U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad to hold talks with Iranian officials in Baghdad. But in Iran's view, the U.S. withdrew the offer and that undercut Larijani's standing inside the regime, strengthening the position of more hard-line elements, including Ahmadinejad. "It was a missed opportunity," contends the expert on U.S.-Iranian relations.

And, in light of the debates that continue to swirl both in Tehran and Washington over whether to talk to each other, it may not have been the last one.