Monday, May 28, 2007

US & Iran Hold First Talks In 27 Years, Over The Future Of Iraq

US Seen In Arab World As Moving To Make Peace With Iran

It is a shocking sign of just how badly the War On Iraq is going, and how little influence the NeoCons now hold over the White House, to see diplomats from Iran and the United States sitting down to talk. Particularly when the media, and blogs like this one, were only speculating a few days ago about when, or if, the US might launch airstrikes against Iran.

The meeting between Iran and the United States was, of course, centred around the future of Iraq, and how both countries may be able to work together to solve the appalling horror that is now daily life for millions of Iraqis.

But less than two months ago President Bush, and Vice President Dick Cheney, and their songbirds across the NeoCon-sympathetic American media, were railing against Iran and blaring they would never negotiate or enter talks with Iran while they continued to enrich uranium.

Not only has America and Iran sat down at the same table for talks, for the first time in 27 years, but there are clear signs this is just the beginning of a series of talks. That Iran had not halted enriching uranium wasn't even mentioned in most of the American media coverage.

Is the United States still demanding that Iran halt all enrichment work before further talks proceed? American envoy to the talks, Charles Crocker, didn't say.

Nor were there more than a few reflections in the American media on the fact that Iran was, and presumably, still remains one-third of the infamous Bush-tagged 'Axis Of Evil'.

Iran clearly has the upper hand in these talks. Iran wants the Shia-led Iraqi government to hold onto power as much as the Americans do, and the Iranians already know this will not lead to Iraq being transformed into a little America in the Middle East. If anything, Iraq is already transforming into another Iran, with Islamists in the corridors of power in Iraq quietly bringing in Sharia law and all the anti-human rights and freedom violations that come with it.

The United States still claims that Iran is feeding and arming and fuelling the insurgency in Iraq, and is somehow possibly involved with Al Qaeda attacks inside the country. But this is all just headlines for the American media, and Iran knows it.

It has been an astounding testimony to the power of spin that the American media has reported on the Iran-Iraq talks without recognising that it is the United States who finally went to Iran and took them up on their months-old offer of helping to bring peace to Iraq.

An incredibly historic day, all the more because the talks took place in Iraq, with an opening speech by Iraqi prime miniser al-Maliki, and that this monumental thaw in Iran-US relations occurred on America's Memorial Day. Probably no accident in itself, with most news broadcasts devoted to solemn ceremony and reflection on the 300,000 plus Americans who have died in more than 100 years of American wars, and the 3800 who have been killed in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It is becoming clear that Iran will probably develop nuclear weapons, if they want them, and the US will allow this to happen.

It will then be to Israel to decide whether they will bomb Iran and unleash carnage across the region, and upon themselves, clearly aware that any attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities will only put back the creation of nuclear weapons by a few years, if at all. Iran know how to make nuclear weapons now, and that knowledge cannot be bombed out of existence.

The NeoCons may not like it, but it is a reality. The United States is left with little choice but to make sure Iran has no need for such weapons, or for them to use the weapons they may build in the future.

The most obvious way the US can guarantee that Iran doesn't move forward with nuclear weapons is to sign a deal which assures Iran they will not be attacked by the US, and that the US will restrain Israel, if need be.

But tonight, Iranians and Arabs and Muslims across the Middle East, and across the world, are stunned and pleased by the spectacular backdown by the United States. Stunned that it actually happened, and pleased that the talks foreshadow a less aggressive role for the United States in the Middle East.

Memorial Day ceremonies and coverage may have filled the news in the United States, but on Arab cable news, watched by hundreds of millions, the United States moving to make peace with Iran, for this is how it has been widely portrayed, was the big news story of the day, perhaps even of the year.

From the Associated Press :
The United States ambassador in Baghdad said he and his Iranian counterpart agreed broadly on policy toward Iraq during four-hour groundbreaking talks on Monday, but insisted that Iran end its support for militants.

The Iranian ambassador later said the two sides would meet again in less than a month.

Hassan Kazemi Qomi, the Iranian envoy, also said that he told the Americans that his government was ready to train and equip the Iraqi army and police to create "a new military and security structure."

Iran proposed setting up a "trilateral security mechanism" that would include the U.S., Iraq and Iran, an idea he said would require study in Washington.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was criticized by the White House for her trip to Syria - also a U.S. rival - praised the Bush administration for holding Monday's talks.

"I think it's very important, and at the end of the day we want to know that every remedy, every diplomatic remedy has been exhausted," she said in Berlin.

The talks were held at Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Green Zone office.

Al-Maliki did not attend the meeting, but the prime minister greeted the two ambassadors, who shook hands, and led them into a conference room, where the ambassadors sat across from each other.

Before leaving, al-Maliki told both sides that Iraqis wanted a stable country free of foreign forces and regional interference. The country should not be turned into a base for terrorist groups, he said. He also said that the U.S.-led forces in Iraq were only here to help build up the army and police and the country would not be used as a launching ground for a U.S. attack on a neighbor, a clear reference to Iran.

Speaking in Tehran, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said the United States should admit its Middle East policy has failed.

"We are hopeful that Washington's realistic approach to the current issues of Iraq by confessing its failed policy in Iraq and the region and by showing a determination to changing the policy guarantees success of the talks and possible further talks," Mottaki said.

Monday's talks, as predicted, had a pinpoint focus: What Washington and Iran - separately or together - could do to contain the sectarian conflagration in Iraq.

"The American side has accusations against Iran and the Iranian side has some remarks on the presence of the American forces on Iraqi lands, which they see as a threat to their government," said Ali al-Dabagh, an Iraqi government spokesman.

But much more encumbered the narrow agenda - primarily Iran's nuclear program and Iranian fears that the Bush administration will seek regime change in Tehran as it did against Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

Washington and its Sunni Arab allies, on their side, are deeply unnerved by growing Iranian influence in the Middle East and the spread of increasingly radical Islam.

The talks did not all go smoothly, and there were more than a few harsh words exchanged across the conference table during the four hour long meeting.

The United States and Iran both blamed each other for the chaos and destruction in Iraq, but Iran also offered to train and arm Iraqi forces, something the US did not loudly object to, as it may provide a way for the United States to pull out of a conflict that is deeply unpopular back home, and causing widespread dissent within its own military :

US ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker accused Iran of fomenting unrest in the country by funnelling weapons and training to extremist militias, and called on Tehran to live up to its promises to support stability.

His Iranian counterpart Hassan Kazemi Qomi, however, accused the US military of not doing enough to arm Iraqi government forces and said the Islamic republic was prepared to step in and do this itself.

Mr Crocker said he had insisted that Iran must back up its stated support for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's beleaguered government by halting its backing for armed factions fighting in Iraq.

"The purpose of our efforts in this meeting was not to build a legal case - presumably the Iranians know what they were doing - our point was simply to say what we know as well; this is dangerous for Iraq," he said.

"What we underscored to the Iranians was that beyond principle there is practice," he said. "The Iranian actions on the ground have to come into harmony with their principles."

Mr Crocker said the Iranians did not address specific US complaints, but instead criticised the American occupation as a whole and complained that US efforts to train Iraqi security forces were inadequate.

Kazemi Qomi described the meeting as positive but blamed the violence in Iraq on the US military presence. He also offered to arm the Iraqi government.

"The Iraqi government is in need of strong military and security structure to confront its security problems and we have offered all forms of assistance such as weapons, training and equipment," he said.

While the United States has to appear to be controlling the situation with Iran, and setting the time and the place for the next talks, behind the scenes the negotiations will continue, as low-level talks between Iran and the United States have already been going on for more than two years over the situation in Iraq.

That Iran has offered to arm and train Iraqi forces, and the United States did not immediately object, is perhaps the more stunning outcome of the meeting.

What then does Israel think of the idea of Iran, perhaps its most hated enemy, arming and training the Iraqi Army and security forces, under an Iraqi government that is firmly pro-Iran?

Israel has barely said a word about the Iran and US talks, presumably because the US told them to keep it down for a few days.

But one prominent story in the Jerusalem Post, discussing the concept of a "Grand Bargain, appeared to be setting the scene for a future where Iran and Iraq are closely and publicly allied, and the United States has pulled back from threatening Iran over its nuclear development programs :

US and Iranian goals and interests in Iraq are diametrically opposed. America's goals are to defeat the insurgency, establish a stable democracy and be able to declare victory as its troops are withdrawn.

Iran's goals are to maintain the status quo - keep the Americans tied down in Iraq, without making the pressure on US forces so great that it will force an early withdrawal.

Keeping US forces bogged down in Iraq not only limits the US's ability to attack Iran's nuclear facilities, it also leaves 160,000 American targets nearby for easy Iranian retaliation should the US attack.

So if there is little hope for the US and Iran joining forces and creating a stable Iraq, why is this meeting so potentially important? Should the talks lead to a dialogue that would try to resolve all the outstanding issues between the two countries - what is often referred to as "the grand bargain"- there is some limited hope for creating a more stable Middle East.

The suggested price (of the "Grand Bargain") has been, until now, a US guarantee not to destabilize the Iranian regime. While in the past the US has refused to give such a guarantee, there might not be a better policy alternative.

The future of the Middle East may have just taken a very unexpected turn for the better.

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