Talks not war are the key to peace with Iran

TEHRAN: As US President George W. Bush declared a primary goal of his current tour of the Middle East was to drum up support for further isolating Iran, the country's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Seyyid Ali Khamenei said that restoring diplomatic ties with Washington at this time would be 'detrimental to Iran's interests,' reports Chris Gelken.

Speaking to a gathering in the central Iranian city of Yazd on Thursday, Ayatollah Khamenei said, that severing diplomatic ties with the United States was one of Iran's original principle policies, but Tehran had never said that it would pursue this policy forever."

While Khamenei's comments appear to open the door to a possible rapprochement between the two bitter enemies, political analysts agree that key to any future thaw would be progress in the Iraq security talks, one of the few occasions where the two sides actually sit down face-to-face.

 "I think it all depends on what comes out of the negotiations between Iran and the United States concerning Iraq," Ebrahim Yazdi, former Iranian Foreign Minister and Secretary General of the Freedom Movement of Iran told PressTV's Middle East Today forum.  "It's a good start. If they could come up with some common interest, some common agreement, and if the American government shows some realistic approach and changes their policy, changes their attitude, then yes it [diplomatic ties] is possible."

However, analysts are not optimistic there will be any serious breakthrough in the foreseeable future, and certainly not during the Bush presidency.

Dr. Robert Naiman, senior policy analyst at the Oregon-based Just Foreign Policy Institute, pointed out that the initiative for the security talks came from Iraq's government in Baghdad, and not from Washington or Tehran.

 "Keep in mind this was a dialogue that was requested by Baghdad," he told Middle East Today,  "The Iraqi government asked the United States and Iran to co-operate on helping bring about security and stability in Iraq."

Naiman said that the Iraqi government obviously has good relations with the United States and Iran, and used this leverage to bring the two sides together.

 "First of all," he said,  "Baghdad asked the U.S. and Iran to settle their differences elsewhere, and not to settle them here, not to use Iraq as a proxy for fighting whatever they wanted to fight about."

Out of their common respect for Iraq, Naiman said, Washington and Tehran were coaxed to the negotiating table to discuss security issues.

 "The fact is, the United States and Iran have many common interests in Iraq, so it would be very strange if they had spurned this request from the head of a friendly government to co-operate. "

And in the foreseeable future, Naiman said,  "I see that as the most positive way forward in terms of US and Iranian relations."

Analysts agree, however, there needs to be a fundamental change in the way Washington formulates its overall foreign policy before any substantive progress can be made in relations with Iran.

 "I am afraid the problem is that the United States has this general problem with every nation, it is not just Iran," Professor William Beeman of Minnesota University told PressTV,  "Look at the situation in Pakistan for example. The United States doesn't have a clue about the political situation there, or in many other countries for that matter."

Even as Bush prepares for his first presidential trip to Israel and other Middle East countries this week, Beeman said the foreign policy strategy for the final year of the Bush administration remains unclear, but at least a military strike against Iran now appears to be off the table.

 "The Bush administration right now, I believe, has already decided that a military option against Iran will not accomplish anything. In fact, those of us who analyse the Middle East have been saying for a long time that we can't understand what in the world a military attack on Iran would ever accomplish," he said.

But Beeman said despite the fact that the National Intelligence Estimate report verified Iran has no operative military nuclear programme; the Bush administration is clinging to this idea that somehow Iran constitutes a danger in the region.

Painting a grim picture of Iran is a cornerstone of Washington's Middle East policy, according to Dr. Hamid Golsharifi, a London-based political analyst.

 "The strategy of the United States, and especially this administration, is to give a negative or bleak picture of what is going on in Iran, even when it comes to democracy," he said.

 "Now here we have the US State Department spokesman saying Bush will use his Middle East visit to confront Iranian influence in the region. This means the United States does not want to see Iran participate in a balanced way. "

In contrast to many other analysts, Golsharifi says he believes it was a mistake for Iran to get involved in the security talks, saying Washington could manipulate the development and cite Iran's participation as clear evidence of their influence in Iraq.

 "I think this was a foreign policy mistake by Iran to engage themselves with the foreign policy of the United States because Washington will draw a negative picture that Iran has influence on Iraq, and has the ability to create stability or instability," he said.

Former Foreign Minister Yazdi, meanwhile, expressed concern that Iran's current crop of diplomats may not be up to the task of dealing with the United States.

 "You see in any meaningful negotiation, in order for both sides to be satisfied, the diplomats must understand the present international situation so they could bargain properly in order to resolve the problem. I am afraid that the Iranian diplomats currently employed by the Foreign Ministry are not qualified for that negotiation," he said.

However, Yazdi went on,  "The point is that we cannot remain at odds with the American government forever. At this time and stage of the electronic revolution, in the global village we cannot discard or ignore our relationship with the United States, in the same way that the US government cannot neglect efforts to improve its relationship with Iran. "

America is pursuing its own priorities, Yazdi said, and you cannot really blame them for that. But he was equally unimpressed with American diplomats and US foreign policy goals, describing them as confused and badly researched.

 "As far as I can see they are unable to understand what is going on inside Iran," he said.  "If you are not aware of ideological or Islamic movements in Iran, or have knowledge of the political groups in Iran, how can you pursue a proper and realistic policy?"

Election year in the United States is bringing some hope for a possible policy change.

 "When you consider the results of the Bush foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East, I believe that no matter whether a Republican or Democrat comes into office they have to implement some changes in these policies," Yazdi said,  "Of course as far as the choices are concerned, I think that the Democrats might be in a better position to improve or implement these changes. "

* Above article based on television debate programme Middle East Today hosted by author and first broadcast on PressTV, Saturday 5th January, 2008