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The Backgroud & Perspective Of US-Iran Talks.

The May 28 Baghdad meeting took place after an attempt to bring together Ms Rice and Iranian Foreign Minister Manoucher Mottaki at a May 3-4 conference at Sharm el-Shaikh in Egypt failed. The only other meeting of the two countries was on the fringe of a conference in Baghdad on March 10.

Crocker and Qomi met in the offices of Iraqi PM Nouri al-Maliki in the heavily fortified Green Zone, as violence continued elsewhere in Iraq, with 24 killed in a truck bomb blast near a Sunni mosque in Baghdad - one example of daily killings despite a US-Iraqi crack-down on armed Sunni/Neo-Salafi and Shi'ite militias. While the Syrian regime concentrates on producing as well as aiding Sunni/Ba'thist and Sunni/Neo-Salafi militants, including the transiting into Iraq of Neo-Salafi jihadis, Iran has been accused of arming and training Shi'ite militias as well as some of the Sunni insurgents.

The problems dividing the US and Iran remain formidable. The theocracy has said it has no intention of backing down over its nuclear programme, which the US claims is aimed at securing a nuclear weapon, and is acting as a regional super-power bent on undermining US influences in the Middle East. In so doing, the theocracy is leading an axis of Middle East players who include the Syrian regime, Sunni Palestinian militants like the Islamist Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and armed Shi'ite militants in several Arab and non-Arab states in the Muslim world where there are Shi'ite communities.

On May 17, the theocracy's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said: Iran had only agreed to "face-to-face" talks with the US so it could "remind the US of its responsibilities...regarding security", and to "give them an ultimatum... The talks will only be about the responsibilities of the occupiers in Iraq... They think that the Islamic Republic has changed its firm, logical, and defendable policy in rejecting negotiation with the US. They are wrong... How is it possible to negotiate with the arrogant, bullying, expansionist, and colonialist government of the US?" On June 1, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati - one of Iran's supremacists like the IRGC, which controls the nuclear programme - was quoted as having said in a mosque sermon the only solution was for the US to leave Iraq.

The supremacists, who believe the Iranian nation is superior to all other peoples in the world, appear to be betting on the Syrian regime's calculation that "the Bush regime" has become too weak to stage yet another war in the Middle East - i.e., Bush is unlikely to stage an attack against Iran's nuclear facilities in view of presidential elections due in November 2008 - and that the Democrats will have the White House as a result. This, it is thought, will give Iran at least until 2010 for its nuclear programme to achieve its aim. There has been speculation within the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that it could take between three to eight years for Iran to develop the nuclear bomb. But it is not clear whether or not the strategists of Iran and Syria keep in mind the fact that Democratic presidents of the US have ordered major wars in the past century, including World War II, Vietnam, Kosovo, etc.

President Assad recently told UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that if the UNSC approved an international tribunal to try the Hariri killers, there would be trouble from the Caspian to the Mediterranean. Just as talk of such tribunal became serious months after Syrian forces were compelled to leave Lebanon in late April 2005 - ending 29 years of occupation and control over Lebanese politics - Syrian ministers began saying publicly that al-Qaeda was already installed in Labanon; some of them even offered the US to give the locations where al-Qaeda had a presence. But the UNSC has approved the tribunal.

On the other hand, both Damascus and Tehran also seem to be eager to have a deal with Washington. If Washington does eventually make a deal with one of them, then the Syria-Iran alliance will end. Even if Washington makes a deal with both, their alliance will not survive (see news23-LebSyrFatahIslamHaririJun4-07).

It was only after a prolonged tussle between pragmatists and hardliners that the Shi'ite theocracy decided to participate in the Baghdad talks. And, for once, US Vice President Dick Cheney's band of neo-conservatives (neo-cons) were out-gunned by the combined forces of the State Department, the CIA and the Pentagon. But both Tehran and Washington still seem to be heading towards a confrontation of some kind.

Iranian officials and media have welcomed the May 28 meeting, the highest-level formal talks between the two sides since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. "Crack in the Wall of Mistrust", blazed the May 29 front-page of Kargozaran, house journal of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the influential former president who leads the pragmatic wing of the theocracy and wants a deal with the US. Like almost all other papers, Kargozaran featured a large picture of the two sides across the conference table.

Hamshahri, a popular daily of the Tehran City Council which is close to the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) headed by Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani, wrote of a "turning point" despite "widespread differences". Larijani is close to Khamenei and is at odds with the supremacists who insist on Iran having nuclear bombs (see rim5-IraqIranMay28-07). His brother, Mohammad Javad Larijani, is a former deputy foreign minister and now is in charge of improving Tehran relations with Washington.

Even Kayhan, whose editor-in-chief Hussein Shariatmadari opposes negotiations with the US, splashed the talks on its front page as an opportunity for Iran to press "charges" against Washington - leaving Jomhouri Eslami as the only mainstream conservative paper calling for talks to be broken off.

Iranian officials presented the May 28 meeting as continuing what they say was the favourable outcome of the Sharm el-Shaikh conference of May 3-4. They argue Sharm el-Shaikh marked clearer recognition by both regional states and the US of a new Iraqi political order emerging in which Iraq's Shi'tes, whose leaders are allies of Iran, will have the greatest influence.

In an interview earlier in May, Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi identified four principles which emerged from Sharm el-Shaikh - support for the elected government in Baghdad; greater authority for the government in "politics, economics and especially security"; boosting the Iraqi army and police; and help for reconstruction. Both Ambassador Qomi and Foreign Minister Mottaki on May 28 reiterated the need to strengthen Iraq's sovereignty along with its security forces. Qomi asked: "Why do the Iraqi police and the country's security forces suffer a lack of equipment, giving the [Sunni/Neo-Salafi] terrorists the upper hand?"

Mottaki said the best way to "put an end to [the] alarming bloodbath in Iraq and spread of violence to the neighbouring countries" was for "the occupying forces [to] leave the country and let the Iraqi government and nation restore national security". But Araghchi made clear in his interview that Iran saw US withdrawal as a planned process emerging from regional discussions.

Iran remains sceptical of US intentions, especially with America's naval war games in the Persian Gulf, but there is a growing perception that a deteriorating US position in Iraq is improving the prospects for bilateral talks. An Iranian analyst says: "What Iran has wanted for the past years was to see a weak US in Iraq and negotiate with them. That happened on Monday [May 28] and was a success for Iran. Even though they covered only general issues, this can lead to specific deals later".

The Iranian side of the table in Baghdad included key security officials, the analyst noted, who "represent the real decision-makers in Tehran". Reza Amiri-Moghadam, the director of the Middle East at the SNSC, is believed to be head of the Middle East section at the Intelligence Ministry. Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, whom Iran described as the head of the "special headquarters for Iraq" at the foreign ministry, is said to be an influential figure in the IRGC, which is active in dealings with Iraq.

The run-up to the May 28 talks also saw an orchestrated chorus of claims and counter-claims. In the previous week a US official accused Iran of fighting a proxy war in Iraq and forging secret ties with al-Qaeda. Another US official characterised Iran's role in Iraq as a player who bet on every horse in every race.

On May 27, Iran responded by accusing the Americans of launching espionage networks within its own borders. Other less obvious messages were also delivered. There was the unexpected May 25 re-emergence of radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who before the February start of the US-led crackdown in Baghdad had disappeared and taken shelter in Iran. Before his disappearance, Sadr had overplayed his hand by withdrawing his support from the Iraqi government only to find that it continued much as before. Iran may think that it can push him back into the government.

The big surprise, however, was a revelation that Sadr was in secret dialogue with the US and that his Jaysh al-Mahdi (JaM) militia had split further with several Iran-backed factions deeply suspicious of those JaM forces still loyal to the young Shi'te cleric who now was projecting an Arab nationalist image. Gulf News on May 31 noted that Sadr's May 25 re-emergence had raised American "hope[s] that his return will contribute to the ongoing dialogue that we've already established and had going on for now for several months with the Shi'ite groups in Iraq". That comment from US Maj Gen William Caldwell, the chief spokesman for the Multi-National Forces (MNF) in Iraq has surprised, among others, his interviewer, CNN anchorman Wolf Blitzer, a former correspondent for the Israeli Jerusalem Post.

Caldwell revealed that the "dialogue...has been proving very positive" and expressed hope that Sadr would "help facilitate that and enhance that further".

Sadr may, or may no longer be, the same man who in April 2003 faced an arrest warrant in connection with the murder of US-backed Shi'ite cleric Abdul-Majid al-Khou'i at the Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf. But the US command in Iraq has never chosen to act on that warrant, apparently for fear of serious repercussions. Six Sadrists were until recently serving in the Maliki cabinet. The US now seems willing to welcome any indirect assistance, even from Sadr himself, to get it out of its Iraq quagmire.

If Washington wanted more co-operation from Iran in curtailing the violence, Tehran wanted from Washington more guarantees about Shi'ite power in Baghdad. Iranian demands include the dislodging of an Iranian opposition group - the Mujahedin e-Khalq (MeK) - from its Iraqi base, and the release of the five Iranians detained by the US in the north.
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Publication:APS Diplomat Strategic Balance in the Middle East
Date:Jun 4, 2007
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