Robert Dreyfuss is the author of Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam (Henry Holt/Metropolitan Books, 2005). Dreyfuss is a freelance writer based in Alexandria, Va., who specializes in politics and national security issues. He is a contributing editor at The Nation, a contributing writer at Mother Jones, a senior correspondent for The American Prospect, and a frequent contributor to Rolling Stone.He can be reached through his website: www.robertdreyfuss.com
Last week we learned about the impending dialogue between the United States and Iran, over Iraq. Months ago, the Bush administration reluctantly gave U.S. ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad the authority to open talks with Iran over the crisis in Iraq. These talks would represent the first time the U.S. has publicly talked with Iran since the 1979 revolution. That the authorization was even granted reflects the utter desperation of the administration.
The Bush administration is stuck in the Iraqi tar baby, unable to exit Iraq without suffering a public and humiliating defeat, without executing an abject retreat, without giving up every single one of its stated objectives in going into Iraq in the first place. That means: no pro-American regime in Baghdad, no U.S. control of Persian Gulf oil, no shining beacon of democracy for the Muslim world, no shock-and-awe blow against the “Islamofascists.”
The civil war in Iraq, which was described in detail over the weekend by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, is not just a disaster for many thousands of Iraqis who will die in it. It is also the death knell for the administration’s bungling, ill-conceived Middle East policy. There is no face-saving way out of Iraq for the Bush administration. As in Vietnam, the United States has lost the war.
So Khalilzad, months after getting permission to talk to Iran, has finally wrangled Iran’s agreement to do so. What does that mean? It means that the Bush administration, which has blustered to the world about Iran being Public Enemy No. 1, which is deep into a half-cocked Regime Change II strategy aimed at Tehran (see "Déjà Vu All Over Iran"), will be seen by the rest of the world as crawling on its hands and knees to Iran, begging the ayatollahs to bail America out.
The entire world knows that Iran has the United States over a barrel in Iraq. Despite the presence of more than 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, it’s no longer under America’s control. Iraq is disintegrating into parts, and Iran has the upper hand. So the question is: What price is the Bush administration willing to pay Iran for help in stabilizing Iraq, if, indeed, it is not already too late? And, more important, what possible motive would Iran have for helping the Bush-Cheney bunglers?
That, too, would be an enormous defeat for U.S. hegemony-minded Project for a New American Century types. In the United States, some so-called realists, including those gathered around the Council on Foreign Relations, seem ready to accept that package deal with Iran. And Iran’s own realists, led by the alleged pragmatists in Iran’s national security establishment, fervently want it, too.
The Bush administration insists that the talks with Iran are absolutely not about a package deal. They insist that the discussions with Iran, if they occur, will be strictly limited to talking about Iraq. And they've made that talks even more complicated by insisting that Iran is a hidden hand behind the insurgency in Iraq, when most analysts believe that Iran's ties to Iraq's Shiite majority make it highly unlikely that Iran is involved in supporting those in Iraq who are fighting the Shiite bloc.
In any case, it doesn’t take a genius to see that Iran has zero incentive to have such limited talks make progress. For Tehran, if the talks lead to a more comprehensive deal, they’ll take it. If the talks are limited to bailing out Bush and Cheney before the ‘06 elections, then no deal. Let them stew.
But with the Bush administration’s hard-liners pressing for regime change in Iran, it would be galling beyond belief to climb back down from the confrontationist perch and make a global deal with Iran. For that reason alone, it is very unlikely that the U.S.-Iran talks can produce much. "I don't have a lot of confidence that these will turn out to be productive, but I could be wrong," said Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, in a masterpiece of understatement.
Inside Iraq, it is also clear that the idea of U.S.-Iran negotiations over Iraq has alarmed the Sunni bloc. The Sunnis can figure out that the United States wants Iran to come to America’s rescue, and that can only happen at their expense. The U.S.-Iran opening was brokered by Abdel Aziz Hakim of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the Iranian-backed party. SCIRI, of course, is the dominant power in the Shiite religious bloc by virtue of its 20,000-strong paramilitary Badr Brigade militia, and along with rest of the Shiite fundamentalist bloc it is closely tied to Iran.
The Sunnis realize that a U.S.-Iran deal over Iraq, however remote, would strengthen Iran’s Shiite allies even further and boost the influence of Iran in Iraq. Neither the Sunnis nor the Kurds want that. So, by talking to Iran in the half-hearted, overly limited way proposed, the United States risks two things: first, that the talks will utterly fail; and second, that even in failing it will alienate the Sunnis and probably boost the Sunni-led resistance movement.
More broadly, Iran is forging ahead to consolidate the gains it has made since the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, which knocked off two of Iran’s deadliest foes—the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. Iran is building economic ties to India and China, strengthening its influence in Lebanon and Syria, talking to Turkey, amassing enormous power in Iraq and reaching out to the Arab world. The Arabs, in particular, are alert to Iran’s influence among the Shiites of Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.
All in all, Iran is emerging as a preeminent force in the Persian Gulf. From the standpoint of the Bush administration, a strong Iran and a U.S.-occupied Iraq is better than a strong Iraq under Saddam Hussein, who was fiercely anti-American, alongside an increasingly powerful Iran. Still, Iran’s ascendancy in the Gulf is not the outcome that was desired by Bush and Cheney in 2003.
For the past 27 years, perhaps no country has so confounded U.S. policy and politics as Iran. In 1979-1980, Iran toppled the Carter administration by seizing the U.S. embassy, holding Americans hostage, and humiliating the United States. In the mid-1980s, Iran bamboozled the neoconservatives in the Reagan administration into the ill-fated “Iran-contra” deal to supply the ayatollahs with weapons, in the process nearly bringing down Reagan. It bedeviled both the Bush I and Clinton administrations, too. And now, more than a quarter century after the fall of the Shah of Iran, Iran is once again poised to triumph over yet another American administration.
Call it: the revenge of the Axis of Evil.