Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The U.S. And Iran Avoid The Rational

By John Limbert
In a reasonable world, the United States and Iran would long ago have discovered that, as the wise walrus said, “The time has come … to talk of many things.” Among those many things is Iraq, where both sides’ common interests far outnumber their differences. Although both Tehran and Washington recognize the obvious, they have so far been unable to take the next step. The unanswerable question remains: “Even if we (reluctantly) admit that common interests exist, what do we do about them?”
Although experts often refer to Iranian policy as “opaque” and inconsistent, Tehran’s aims in Iraq are not secret: to prevent the emergence of a new Saddam Hussein, who might be tempted to break the stalemate that ended the long Iran-Iraq war; to stop activity of violent, extremist Sunni groups on Iraqi territory; to prevent the break-up of Iraq and the emergence of an independent Iraqi Kurdistan on Iran’s borders; to prevent Iraq from descending into civil war that would threaten Iraqi Shiite and Iranian pilgrims’ access to the country’s holy sites; to prevent Iraq from supporting separatist movements among Iran’s ethnic Arabs and Kurds; to ensure that no foreign country (in other words the United States) uses Iraqi territory as a base to attack Iran; and to remove the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, which opposes the regime in Tehran, from its base in Iraq.
Most of these policy goals are close to what the United States says it wants in Iraq: a unified state at peace with itself and its neighbors.
The U.S. has one other goal that Iran publicly says it shares: the withdrawal of American and other coalition forces. If those forces are going to leave Iraq safely, they will need at least Tehran’s tacit agreement to do so. The road back to Kuwait for coalition forces is long and potentially vulnerable. Tehran, by design or miscalculation, could make that withdrawal a difficult one.
Yet efforts to start a dialogue on these shared goals have gone nowhere. In May and July of 2007, for example, meetings in Baghdad between the U.S. ambassador, Ryan Crocker, and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Kazemi-Qomi achieved little. The two sides, micro-managed by their respective capitals, offered little beyond a mutual recitation of grievances and a diplomatically stated accusation of bad faith.
According to press accounts after the May event, Crocker noted common stated interests, saying, “At the level of policy and principle, the Iranian position as articulated by the Iranian ambassador was very close to our own.” He added, however, “What we would obviously like to see, and the Iraqis would clearly like to see, is an action by Iran on the ground to bring what it’s actually doing in line with its stated policy.”
The public format and the attitudes in the two capitals guaranteed that the two sides would continue their dysfunctional ways and that the result of this encounter, like most others, would confirm each side’s most negative preconception: that the “other” is by nature deceitful and hypocritical. According to this view, each side believes the other comes to the table not to discuss issues or reach fair agreements, but to cheat and to score points with a hard-line domestic audience.
The fate of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq members remaining at Camp Ashraf in Iraq is another issue where residue of past grievances, real or imagined, prevents the two sides from acting in their mutual interests. The resolution to this issue is clear. Perhaps 90-95 percent of Camp Ashraf residents could return to Iran under International Red Cross supervision, abandon MEK activity, and benefit from an amnesty that, by all accounts, the Tehran authorities have respected for earlier returnees. Once that group has left Iraq, those hard-core members remaining – perhaps fewer than 50 – would be a very different and much more manageable problem.
Except for the MEK’s hired mouthpieces, everyone can see this obvious solution that removes a major irritant to all parties. Once again, however, the two sides’ historic inability to “get to yes” at the same time has played havoc with rational policy. The crux of the problem is this: Any deal one side accepts or proposes is, by definition, seen as bad for the other. Each is convinced that the other’s purpose in life is to annoy and mislead “our side.” Therefore – in this curious universe – both sides assume that anything the other proposes or accepts contains a hidden motive to deceive.
The Iraq impasse is just a symptom of the disease that has come to infect U.S.-Iranian relations after 30 years of futility, featuring exchanges of insults, accusations, threats, and sometimes worse. In these exchanges, neither side can do anything right. The United States is “global arrogance” and the “great Satan.” Iran is a member of the “axis of evil.” Efforts to break this cycle – this downward spiral – have foundered on mistrust and on the fact that 30 years of estrangement have made officials comfortable with the negative status quo. Bashing the other is something all have learned well; working together, even when obvious common ground exists, has proved much more difficult.
-This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 23/08/2011
-John Limbert is a retired U.S. Foreign Service officer and professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the U.S. Naval Academy. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons-international.org, an online newsletter

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