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Cook: Decision to Meet With Syria, Iran ‘Positive'

Interviewee: Steven A. Cook, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
February 28, 2007

Steven A. Cook, an expert on Middle East policy, who served as an adviser to the Iraq Study Group, says the Bush administration’s decision to participate in a regional meeting on Iraq, including Iran and Syria, marks “a positive change in policy,” at a time of widespread criticism of its Iraq policy in Congress.

The Iraq Study Group, in its report last December, called for a dialogue between Iraq and the United States on one side and other countries in the Middle East including Syria and Iran. The administration seemed to go out of its way to denigrate that recommendation; in fact, it said that until Iran and Syria changed their unhelpful behavior in Iraq, it wasn’t going to talk to them. What do you think brought about this change yesterday in which Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the United States would attend such a regional meeting?

There are a number of things that have happened that have forced the administration’s hand and forced it to change tracks. One, the political pressure in Washington has been building for a regional dialogue. Since the administration is on the defensive with regard to its Iraq policy, with nonbinding resolutions in the Congress opposing the administration’s policy, this is a way in which the Bush administration can demonstrate that it learned it can actually change, that it has learned from the experience and it is now willing to talk to the regional actors.

“It is true that they’ve ratcheted up the pressure on the Iranians. But at the same time, the Iranians hold many of the cards, and even with this pressure they have the means to make the U.S. military’s life much more difficult in Iraq.”

Now that’s not necessarily the way the administration sees it. The official reason for the change in policy is now the United States is not on the defensive vis-à-vis Iran in particular. They’ve ratcheted up the pressure on the Iranians over the course of the last month to six weeks. They’ve arrested Iranians in Iraq, they’ve made a big push to demonstrate that the Iranians are supplying a variety of Iraqi militia groups with these things called EFPs [Explosively Formed Projectiles] and the means to develop them. The United States has also sent another carrier battle group off the coast of Iran in an effort to ratchet up the pressure on the Iranians. So the administration feels they would be negotiating with the Iranians from a position of strength now. I’m not necessarily sure that I buy that argument. It is true they’ve ratcheted up the pressure on the Iranians. But at the same time, the Iranians hold many of the cards, and even with this pressure they have the means to make the U.S. military’s life much more difficult in Iraq. Even though we have done this “show the flag” operation with the navy, it hasn’t altered Iranian behavior. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said as recently as yesterday that the Iranians will continue to develop their nuclear weapons. This is a positive change in policy; we need to have a broad discussion with the Iranians. But I don’t necessarily see this as being the end of the story here.

As many people have pointed out, the forces that have killed more Americans are the al-Qaeda and Sunni forces in Iraq, which presumably Iran has little influence over. Can such a regional conference do anything to halt that violence, since most Arab countries who would be at the conference are largely Sunni?

It should be part of our foreign policy to be talking to the Iranians and the Syrians. I’m not sure that in the region the Sunni powers can tamp down on al-Qaeda-type violence. This is a group that is not going to be satisfied by political deals, by carrots and things along those lines. The hope is that the broader Sunni population of Iraq will not feel so vulnerable if the whole region is involved, if there is support from the Saudis and the Jordanians. But with every action there’s a reaction. So if the Saudis, the Jordanians, the Egyptians, and the other Sunni powers seem to be supporting the Sunnis, what will the majority Shiites do in response?

There are competing visions over the future of Iraq. The Shiites clearly see power in their demographic numbers. The Sunnis, who don’t necessarily feel themselves as a minority, would like to regain power. But even if the Sunni powers were able to manage to help the Sunnis regain 30 percent of the power that they once held, that’s still 70 percent less than what they once held. So it’s a good thing for the United States to be discussing the region with folks like the Syrians and the Iranians, but I don’t see this as a panacea. It can help, but it’s not the magic bullet.

Now you and I talked recently when Rice started the round of talks with the Israelis and Palestinians because the Iraq Study Group had also said progress should be made on that front. That started before these Iraq talks will start. Is there still a relationship, you think?

I do think there is a relationship. The Sunni powers, the people who are going to help us on the Palestinian front, need to demonstrate something as a result of their helping the United States. This is the obvious thing for them, so I think there’s a relationship. And that’s why the United States has been so involved. You hate to be cynical about these things, but clearly, Condoleezza Rice has been as active as she has been—after six and a half years of this administration holding the Arab-Israeli conflict at arm’s length—because we need help from other Arab capitals, and this is clearly the price that they’re extracting from the United States. Bottom line, it’s a good thing for the United States to be involved in Arab-Israeli peacemaking. One of the things that outrages Arab publics is that we haven’t been involved. And if we can be seen to be constructive, it may help our very weak position in terms of public opinion in the Middle East.

Now the Palestinians still haven’t announced officially this new unity government. I guess people are waiting to see who’s in it and whether the United States and Israel will deal with it.

Right.

The United States has taken the position it’ll deal with that when they see the makeup of the new government. Do you think there’s any chance the United States might be more flexible?

My sense is that what we’ll see exactly what we’ve seen all along. The United States is going to follow the Israelis’ lead on this one. If it’s good enough for the Israelis, then it’ll be good enough for the United States. Interestingly though, the Europeans are starting to peel away from the United States on this. There have been some statements from British diplomats saying that if this national unity government is good enough, we should start dealing with whatever national unity government comes about. The Mecca agreement is enough for the European Union. So now you’re going to have a split within the “Road Map” quartet. Russia all along has been saying that we should lift the ban on aid to the Palestinians. The European Union has stood with the United States, but now we’re seeing some daylight between the United States and the European Union.

Coming back to yesterday’s announcement by Secretary of State Rice that the United States would participate in this regional conference, it has now been expanded I gather to include the European Union and the UN Security Council.

And invitations were sent to representatives from the Group of Eight (G8) industrialized nations last night. So this is going to be rather expansive, and I think the administration is hedging. It’s going to be at a meeting with the Iranians and the Syrians, but there is a desire to have enough people around the table so that it dilutes this. It’s unclear as of yet whether Secretary Rice will meet one-on-one with the Syrian and Iranian foreign ministers. There’s something else about this proposed meeting that I think is important. There has been continuity in Iranian foreign policy going back even to the days of the Shah, and this is a quest for recognition of Iran’s role as a regional power. Here’s an opportunity to open a broad dialogue with the Iranians in this way and implicitly recognize their regional role and their regional influence. I wonder whether this might be the start of a dialogue that would change in some ways Iranian behavior. I wonder if an acknowledgement of its role in the region and its importance may not ameliorate other areas where we’re having problems with the Iranians, particularly in the Gaza strip, particularly in Iraq, maybe that will change to some extent Iranian policy, and also in Lebanon.

“I wonder if an acknowledgement of its role in the region and its importance may not ameliorate other areas where we’re having problems with the Iranians, particularly in the Gaza strip, particularly in Iraq, maybe that will change to some extent Iranian policy, and also in Lebanon.”

The Iranians are hard-nosed negotiators. We do have a difference of interests with the Iranians and they still see large American forces on all of their borders, but this is a step that we should take before we take military action against the Iranians. We should exhaust the discussions with them.

You’re already talking about military action?

I’m not jumping into it. I’m saying we need to exhaust this diplomatic avenue before we move to military action because military action would actually be disastrous for the United States.

The administration keeps saying it’s not planning any military action.

The administration says a lot of things, but of course they are doing things that are ratcheting up the pressure. And from the other side, the Iranians perceive the United States to be weak. So, you know, that’s not a good combination. I’m not an advocate of military action and that’s why I think ultimately these talks are positive. We need to explore this avenue. If the Iranians reveal themselves to be noncooperative, well, then we’re on a different road.

What about Syria? Can they do anything to help out Iraq?

The Syrians can do a better job on policing their border. But what’s uppermost in the minds of the Syrian leadership is relieving the pressure on the investigation and international tribunal on the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. That is essentially the price the United States is going to have to pay. That’s what the Syrians are looking for in terms of gaining its cooperation. Talks with the Iranians are much more important than the talks with the Syrians, to be honest with you. But there is a Syrian-Israeli angle here. The Israelis have demonstrated an interest in dealing with the Syrians as a result of the war in Lebanon over the summer. There may be something that can be done as a result of these talks to jump-start a Syrian-Israeli negotiation. But the Syrians have a history of playing both ends of the fence, being constructive in one area and being the furthest from constructive in another area.

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