Earlier this week, following a story in Newsweek that America will restart talks with Iran on stabilizing Iraq, the chief of Iran's revolutionary guard gave a revealing press conference. According to Iran Press News, Major General Yahya Rahim Safavi told reporters in Tehran that America has tried since 1979 to "thwart the export of the revolution." But, he said, "the activities in Lebanon, Palestine, and present-day Iraq, as well as Islamic and freedom-seeking nations of the world proved the opposite."
Get that. The man in charge of a military devoted to the violent spread of Islamic theocracy has just said his side is winning in Iraq, not to mention Lebanon and Palestine. And America now wants to engage Iran in limited negotiations to cooperate in thwarting terrorism in Iraq. Let us pause to marvel at the wonders of foreign policy "realism."
On the same day as Mr. Safavi's tirade, a State Department spokesman explained that America's ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, had a "a very narrow mandate" dealing "specifically with issues related to Iraq." The narrowness of the Iraq portfolio is debatable, as is whether this initiative constitutes a new "mandate."
Mr. Khalilzad has been empowered for some time to discuss areas of mutual concern with Iran. He invited their envoys to the 2001 Bonn Conference on reconstruction in Afghanistan. In December 2002, he brokered talks between Iraq's opposition in London that included members of Iranian sponsored groups that are now in power. At the time, negotiations were stalled until the representatives of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq received negotiating authority from Tehran.
In 2003, Mr. Khalilzad started talks with the Iranians in Geneva, Switzerland on the subject of Iraq. At those talks he briefly considered, before rejecting, a swap of terrorists with Iran. Since assuming the ambassadorial post in Iraq, Mr. Khalilzad has had numerous back channel discussions with the Iranians on matters that far exceed the "narrow mandate" of Iraq, such as the Islamic Republic's nuclear program and negotiating position at the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Discussions alone are not necessarily appeasement. But the assumption that underlies these talks comes close. Secretary of State Rice and her predecessor, Colin Powell, have repeatedly said that Iran and Syria have an interest in stabilizing Iraq. And while it may make sense for a transparent republic to help prevent a civil war in a neighboring country, our enemies do not think like we do.
Look for example at the gruesome reports on the Iraqi Interior Ministry's constellation of secret jails, or the reporting this week that death squads comprised of Shiite Iraqi security forces are arresting and murdering Sunni Iraqi Arabs at random. Does anyone think this sort of bloodletting is not being done with the consent if not aid of Mr. Safavi's revolutionary guards?
Or consider how in 2004 at least, Muqtada al-Sadr appeared to be coordinating his attacks with Al Qaeda and the Baathists against American soldiers. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, according to Michael Ledeen and others, travels in and out of Iran frequently. And the Pentagon has warned that most of the increasingly sophisticated improvised explosive devices blowing up our soldiers in Iraq are imported from Iran.
Now all of this revolution export has been happening in Iraq despite on again, off again talks with the Iranians conducted by Mr. Khalilzad. This is not to doubt the diplomatic skills of a man who has proven his mettle under fire in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Rather it is to doubt the intentions of the Iranians.
Perhaps this time, Mr. Khalilzad could really try something new. He could widen the parameters of his new mandate. Instead of limiting talks to Iraqi security and questions having to do with the control of a border open to escaping members of Ansar al-Islam in 2003, America's ambassador in Baghdad could broach the fate of Iranian political prisoner Akbar Ganji and other dissidents.
According to Mr. Ganji's wife, Massoumeh Shafii, her husband has received death threats in jail. It would be nice of Mr. Khalilzad said publicly in earshot of Iranian reporters that not a hair on Mr. Ganji's head should be touched, or there would be hell to pay. He could follow this up by reaching out to the student groups now demonstrating again on Mr. Ganji's behalf and simply asking if there is anything America might be able to do for them.
This sort of diplomatic maneuver does not fit neatly into the "realism" of the president's new approach to Iraq. The realists will point out that there is no guarantee that support for Iranian democrats will yield regime change, let alone when this will happen. And in a sense they are right. It is next to impossible to predict the timing and success of non-violent democratic revolutions.
But the uncertainty of this strategy is preferable to what seems to be the certain failure of the diplomatic initiative Mr. Khalilzad will begin anew this week with Tehran. For nearly seven years, two presidents have tried engagement with Iran, only to leave the Islamic Republic's leaders ever more emboldened. Just ask Mr. Safavi.