A Glimmer of Optimism on the U.S.-Iran Front?

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A veteran of three White House national security teams spanning from Ford through Reagan, Columbia University’s Gary Sick is not given to excessive flights of optimism. Experience would favor caution. While serving in the Carter administration, for instance, Sick was working as the principal White House aide on Iran during the 1979 Iranian revolution and hostage crisis, a trauma from which U.S.-Iranian relations has never recovered. But a recent analysis Sick has shared with a private list he runs on Persian Gulf affairs offers a hint of cautious optimism about recent, mostly below-the-radar developments between Washington and Tehran, especially on the Iran-in-Iraq front. Here’s an excerpt, shared with permission:

Over the past several weeks, there has been a quiet process of apparent concessions and small gestures of approval between the United States and Iran in Iraq. General Petraeus told the Wall Street Journal that Iran “made promises at the highest levels of the Iranian government to the highest levels of the Iraqi government. These were unequivocal pledges to stop the funding, training, arming and directing of militia extremists in Iraq. It will be hugely significant to see if that’s the case.” Only a few weeks earlier, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates had noted that the discovery and use of improvised explosive devices (IED) of suspected Iranian origin in Iraq had declined, along with the general decline of
violence associated with the U.S. military surge and new counter-insurgency tactics.

In between these two announcements, the U.S. military released nine Iranians who had been arrested and held for many months. Even more unusual was the fact that the release of these men, now officially labeled of “no continued intelligence value,” had been reviewed only a few months earlier and rejected. Stranger still, they were identified as members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and its special intelligence division, the Qods Brigade, which had just been officially designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. government. Shortly thereafter, the Iraqi government announced that a fourth round of direct talks between the United States and Iran would take place in the near future.

So, what is going on here?

… I withhold judgment for now, but I think this series of unexpected events that got very little media attention was important in several ways. First, it tends to put the lie to all the heated speculation that the United States is about to bomb Iran. I never thought the likelihood of that was very high, due to the political and military constraints on the administration in Washington, but this seems to underline quite a
different approach.

Second, it lays a more constructive background for the next round of U.S.-Iranian talks in Baghdad, which should convene in the near future. The three meetings to date have been largely devoted to shouting at each other across the table. These recent events suggest that a more realistic and practical bargaining process might be underway.

Finally, I note that U.S. foreign policy is increasingly in the hands of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is showing herself to be a consummate realist, particularly as the neo-conservative ideologues increasingly find themselves without government employ and quarantined from the policy process, and as the Office of the Vice President watches its policy influence evaporating almost by the day. I am particularly intrigued by the fact that administration policy toward North Korea and the Palestinian issue have effectively reversed in the past year (regardless of pro-forma administration claims that the policies remain
steady and unchanging).

Is there room in these last months of a lame duck presidency to craft a modest opening to Iran, while maintaining a stout anti-Iranian coalition? Well, if we are to heed the cries of alarm emanating from the neo-conservatives as they watch their grandiose plans to add a third front to the War on Terror crumple into the dustbin of history, perhaps there really is something going on here. …

Not exactly Nixon goes to China. But Sick’s remarks are a useful perspective to keep in mind amid all the reports suggesting confrontation is imminent, or inevitable.

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