Juan Cole: About Those First Formal US-Iran Talks since 1980





[Mr. Cole is Professor of Modern Middle Eastern and South Asian History at the University of Michigan. His website is http://www.juancole.com/.]

The US has dealt differently with Iran than with any other of its major enemies. Then President Ronald Reagan spoke directly with Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev even though the USSR had thousands of nuclear missiles aimed at the US. The US talks to North Korea. It talks to Venezuela. It doesn't talk to Cuba, but then Cuba is a small weak country of 11 million. Iran is an oil state with a population of some 70 million.

Do the United States and Iran have things to talk about? Yes. They have several common interests, which could be stressed and developed fruitfully.

1. Shiite Iran is a deadly enemy of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, which the US is also fighting. Instead of making up silly charges against Iran, the US could explore avenues of cooperation against these enemies.

2. Shiite Iran is a deadly enemy of the Iraqi Baath Party and of the radical Salafi Jihadis who are responsible for most of the violence in Iraq and for most of the killings of US troops. There are ways in which the US and Iran could cooperate in defeating these forces, which are inimical to both Washington and Tehran.

3. Shiite Iran is happy with the Shiite led government of Iraq and wants to see Iraq's territorial integrity maintained. Supporting the al-Maliki government and keeping Iraq together are also goals of the United States.

It is not true, as Robert Kagan once alleged to me on the radio, that if something is in Iran's interest, it will do it anyway, so that talks are useless. It is often the case that countries, like individuals, cut off their noses to spite their faces. Effective diplomacy can often lead a country to see the advantages of cooperation on some issues, so that its leaders stop sulking and actually turn to accomplishing something.

The way in which fighting the Salafi Jihadis and al-Qaeda can unite otherwise contentious forces is visible in Lebanon, where Nasrallah's [Shiite] Hizbullah supported the Seniora government's fight against [the radical Sunni] Fatah al-Islam. The leader of the latter had been close to the notorious Shiite-killer, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Iran is not foredoomed to be a rejectionist state. It offered to initiate talks that could have led to a comprehensive peace with the US and Israel in early 2003. The US tossed away that opportunity, which won't come back as long as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is president (at least until 2009).

So let us hope it won't toss away more opportunities, and that Supreme Jurisprudent Ali Khamenei and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani can reign in the hardliners around Ahmadinejad enough to reduce tensions.

Howard LaFranchi at the Christian Science Monitor reports on Monday's historic talks between the US and Iran in Baghdad.

I am quoted:

' "The talks would not be taking place unless Bush backed them and ... Khamenei backed them," says Juan Cole, an expert on Iraq and Shiite movements at the University of Michigan. "[President Bush] is to the point where he will try anything," he adds, but "it also points to the increased influence of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice" and the administration's new Iraq team: Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and his man in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, and Crocker, who recently arrived from Pakistan. '

and here:

' "The US-Iran talks are deeply unpopular among some elements in Washington and Tehran," says Mr. Cole. "The Cheney camp is reported to be opposed to them, and the arrests [in Iran] of Iranian-American academics in recent days may well be an attempt by some in the camp of [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad to sabotage these talks." '

I wasn't so much referring to the case of Haleh Esfandiari, which goes back to December, though she was only recently put in Evin Prison, but of sociologist Kian Tajbakhsh. Patrick Seale lays out all the reasons for pessimism about the progress these bilateral US/Iran talks on Iraqi security will make.

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