The Bush administration has reversed its position on engaging with the two terror-sponsoring nations in the Middle East to help stabilize Iraq. After rejecting the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group to start conducting diplomatic talks with Iran and Syria, Condoleezza Rice announced that she would be doing just that — but only after the White House forced Iraq to forge an agreement on its toughest internal issue:
American officials said Tuesday they had agreed to hold the highest-level contact with the Iranian authorities in more than two years as part of an international meeting on Iraq.
The discussions, scheduled for the next two months, are expected to include Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her Iranian and Syrian counterparts.
The announcement, first made in Baghdad and confirmed by Ms. Rice, that the United States would take part in two sets of meetings between Iraq and its neighbors, including Syria and Iran, is a shift in President Bush’s avoidance of high-level contacts with the governments in Damascus and, especially, Tehran.
Critics of the administration have long said that it should do more to engage its regional rivals on a host of issues, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Lebanon. That was the position of the Iraq Study Group, the high level commission that last year urged direct, unconditional talks that would include Iran and Syria.
It’s no secret that the government of Nouri al-Maliki wanted the US to open talks with Iran. They haven’t been quiet about it, and they have insisted that Iraq will have diplomatic relations with Teheran regardless of what the US says. The Bush administration used this as leverage to get the Iraqis to move on the oil revenue plan, a longstanding issue that created political tension and mistrust between the Sunnis and the Shi’ites and Kurds that control the oil.
So perhaps the Bush rejection of the ISG recommendation could be seen as tactical rather than strategic, but just the same, this is a reversal of their position on Iran at the least. The US and Syria have diplomatic relations — strained, but they exist — and so opening a dialogue with Damascus doesn’t represent as much of a climbdown as including Iran in regional talks does. The White House, especially Dick Cheney, had insisted that Iran could not be a viable partner for Iraqi security while it sponsored terrorism throughout the Middle East.
Somehow, that view has changed, and it could mean something significant in the balance of power in the Bush administration. It seems like Condoleezza Rice may have prevailed over the Vice President, whose influence appears to be waning in the last two years of the Bush presidency. The abrupt replacement of Donald Rumsfeld and the questionable resolution of the Korean crisis indicates a softening of the approach taken by the administration, at least in tone.
The State Department disagrees with this analysis. Philip Zelikow, who recently departed from Rice’s senior staff, told the New York Times that the intent of the rhetoric was to get the Iranians to take us seriously. We saw the result of that effort this week in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s loss of face over his own careless rhetoric. Now that the Iranians understand that we mean business, Zelikow says, we can do business.
Well, perhaps. If so, then the brinksmanship was also tactical rather than strategic. However, the fact remains that Iran sponsors terrorism in and out of Iraq, and its interests in doing so exist in almost complete contradiction to our interests in the region. We can jaw jaw instead of war war, but unless Iran stops sponsoring Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, and other regional terror organizations, they will continue conducting war war whether we jaw jaw or not.