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Baghdad Conference: New Path or Pandora's Box

By: Amin Shariatzadeh and Farzad Khalili


On May 13 of this year Iran declared its readiness to hold talks with the United States over the security of Iraq. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei the leader of the Islamic Republic declared Iran will participate in the Baghdad Conference because of request from Iraqi government officials to improve security in Iraq. He stated in this meeting the Iranian government will remind “the occupying power of its responsibility”. The approval of Iranian supreme leader has surprised many political observers. The United States and Iran will hold their first official face-to-face meeting on May 28, 2007 in Baghdad in the ambassador level. According to the news reports, Hassan Kazemi-Quomi the Iranian ambassador to the Iraq will be heading the Iranian delegation and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador in Iraq, will represent the U.S. in this conference. Both countries have place the Iraqi security as their main agenda and have not shown interest in discussing their own disagreements. Many political observers believe the Baghdad conference can be a starting point which will lead to further discussion on other conflicting issues between both sides.  The question is whether this conference will open a new diplomatic opportunity or will escalate the tensions between both countries in the future.

The Iranian revolution of 1979 and occupation of the U.S. embassy by the Iranian students broke the direct
diplomatic relationship between both countries in April 1980. Although, it is not the first time Iranian and American officials have met since breaking diplomatic relationship, this meeting has unprecedented aspects because of the willingness of both sides to openly discuss Iraq’s security and blessing of Iran’s leader Ali Khamenei. The negotiation over releasing the U.S. hostages in Iran in 1980, selling arms to Iran and traveling of Robert McFarlane a member of U.S. National Security Council to Iran during the Iran-Iraq war which is known as Iran-Contra, and the positive participation of Iranian government to set up a new government in Afghanistan after the collapse of Taliban in 2001 are some of the indirect contacts between both countries in the last three decades.

This negotiation is taking place at the time that five Iranian citizens are still under the U.S. custody. In January of 2007 the U.S. army raided a building in Irbil, Iraq and arrested Iranian citizens. The U.S. claimed the five citizens were agents of Qudes Army who were training Iraqi insurgents. The Iranian government has rejected this allegation and has claimed they are Iranian diplomats who have been performing their diplomatic tasks in Iraq with Iraqi government’s knowledge.  As part of continuous pressure on Iran, one week before the approval of negotiation by Supreme Leader, U.S. Vice President, Dick Cheney, on the U.S. Naval Ship, USS John C. Stennis, only 240 km from the Iranian shores gave a threatening message to the Iranian government, “the United States would join allies to keep Iran from getting nuclear weapons and dominating the region.” On other hand, Iran’s continued influence on the region through the collapse of its two arch enemies of Tehran by Washington and its persisting enriching of uranium have worried the countries of the region. Hence, the American government through an international consensus, successfully, has put unprecedented pressure on the Iranian regime.  It seems that flexibility of the Iranian government for the readiness of negotiation is the result of the international pressures.

The escalation of the conflict in Iraq and danger of a civil war compelled the U.S. administration to appoint a panel to examine the situation in Iraq on March 15, 2006 and find a better strategy for reducing violence. This panel was headed by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton. One of the recommendations from the Baker-Hamilton Commission was for the U.S. to negotiate with Iraq’ neighbors including Iran and Syria regarding Iraqi security. This recommendation as well as Democrats taking power in both U.S. houses on November 7, 2006 pressured the administration to consider talking with both Syria and Iran.

September 11, 2001 was a turning point in the history; it propelled the United States to find a new approach to the Middle East in order to fight radical Islamism. This policy is known as “Greater Middle East”; it suggests that the current repressive governments provide a fertile ground for the growth of Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East. As part of this plan, the United States and its allies invaded Iraq to topple the regime of Saddam Hussein and set up a democratic and pro-western government as a model for the rest of the Muslim world. The continuous escalation of the violence in Iraq is a fundamental challenge for the America’s “Greater Middle East” policy. To rescue the “Greater Middle East” policy, the American government has no choice except to find a viable and urgent solution for Iraqi security. One of the objectives for the United States at this conference will be to give a stern warning to Iran, a country the U.S. alleges frequently is an obstacle to Iraqi security, and  to stop its destructive intervention in Iraq. In general, the Iraq issue is a matter of life and death for the United State’s policy toward the Middle East.

Iran has declared it is attending this conference because of the Iraqi government’s request. Tehran has been the big winner in this conflict the United States overthrew one of its arch enemies Saddam Hussein and subsequently a Shiite government that is closed to the Iranian government has taken the power. Although Iran has declared that the conference is limited to Iraq security issue, it seems Iran’s objectives go beyond the security of Iraq. One of the issues that exist between both countries is the suspicious by the Iranian that the U.S. wants to overthrow the government. The recent arrest of Iranian-American scholars, Haleh Esfandiari, Kian Tajbakhsh, and Ali Shakari as well as Radio Farda reporter, Parinaz Aziama is not a coincidence on the eve of the conference because the Iranian government wants to indicate America’s intervention in its internal affair. Another issue is Iran’s demand that the five Iranian citizens arrested in Irbil be released.  Iran’s quest for nuclear technology as well as Tehran’s desire to be recognized as a regional power in the Middle East are some of the other objectives for Tehran. It seems Tehran wants to use the conference as a scene to address its own concerns with the Americans. Although Iran has repeatedly said that it wants the “occupying forces” to leave Iraq, its true intention might be otherwise. The U.S. forces leaving Iraq at this time can create a chaotic situation and put the Shiite government in danger of collapse which will harm Iran’s interest in Iraq. Furthermore, the vacuum of the withdrawal of the U.S. forces can be filled by the Sunni forces which are backed from Saudi Arabia and it can put Shiites under pressure and diminish the power of Iran in the region.

The May 28 conference in Baghdad between Tehran and Washington is unprecedented event. But it is not a manifestation of changing strategies by both countries. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran is continuing with its enriching uranium for nuclear technology and it is continuing its support of Shiite elements in Iraq and Hezbollah. The United States is also continuing with its past policies; according to ABC news, President Bush has authorized a CIA a covert operation against Iran; the U.S. and its allies also have called for tougher sanction against Iran because of Tehran’s refusal to halt its nuclear program. Iran does not want to stop its nuclear program. There  is no sign to indicate the Iranian government has stopped its support of fundamentalist groups in the region. On the other hand the United States can not accept Iran’s nuclear activities while it will try to cease Iran’s support of the fundamentalist group. In fact, the progress of “Greater Middle East” policy contradicts with the foundation of Iran’s political behavior in the international and internal realm. Thus, we can not be very optimistic about the Baghdad conference as a starting point to open an official relationship between two countries. It is not far from reality that the Baghdad conference could turn to a scene of mutual accusations instead of finding a practical solution to the security of Iraq. The beginning of official relationship with the Untied States means a fundamental failure for the ideology of the government which one of its components is anti-Americanism. Furthermore, the failure of this conference can add another layer on the thick wall of suspicious which exists between both countries, the suspicious that can escalate tensions between both countries in the future. The failure of this conference can lead to an unpredictable event.


About the authors: Farzad Khalili and Amin Shariatzadeh are students in the United States and are studying Middle East affairs.


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