Two Iranian-American academics sit in Iranian jail cells, charged with espionage (BBC), and five Iranian operatives remain prisoners of U.S. forces in Iraq. Tension over these captives, along with a host of other deep problems, set an unusual backdrop for rare bilateral talks between the two longstanding foes. Yet the Iraq war provides a rare instance where U.S. and Iranian interests converge more than they collide. Neither Washington nor Tehran wants to see a failed state or the return of a Saddam-like strongman to power. Both back the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, albeit tepidly at times, and both at least nominally want an Iraqi Kurdistan to remain just that.
Though limited to the Iraq issue, U.S.-Iranian talks on May 28 were nonetheless historic (LAT). They marked the first formal meeting of the two countries at the diplomatic level since the Carter administration (this interactive timeline outlines their stormy relationship, stretching back to World War II). Of course, the elephant in the room—Iran’s nuclear program—went unmentioned, as did Tehran’s support for groups Washington deems terrorists, like Hamas and Hezbollah.
Still, the mere fact that U.S. and Iranian diplomats are finally talking is in itself an achievement. The Bush administration had long ignored suggestions, from the Iraq Study Group and elsewhere, to directly engage Iran and Syria on Iraq. Its reversal reflects political realities in Washington, not to mention the worsening security situation in Iraq. Nobody believes that the Iranians hold the key to bringing security to Iraq. But the meeting, which took place in Baghdad’s Green Zone, did hold out some hope for future cooperation and further talks. Iran’s ambassador to Iraq, Hassan Kazemi-Qomi, mentioned the creation of a “trilateral mechanism” to discuss areas of agreement on Iraq, though the proposal lacked specifics (NYT). The Iranians also offered to assist in training Iraqi security forces and rebuilding Iraq’s infrastructure.
Yet areas of disagreement far outweigh areas of overlap between the two sides. Washington, which accuses Tehran of abetting Shiite militias and supplying armed groups in Iraq with roadside explosives, arrested and detained five Iranian agents in Iraq earlier this year. Last week the United States staged naval exercises (IranMania) in the Persian Gulf as a show of force. Iran, meanwhile, claims that the U.S. occupation in Iraq has undermined stability there and criticized U.S. efforts to rebuild Iraq’s armed forces as inadequate.
Most experts are not getting their hopes up over the productivity of direct talks, given the entrenched viewpoints of both sides. Former U.S. Defense Department adviser Richard Perle recently said he does not believe “there is any interest (RFE/RL) on the part of the mullahs in Tehran in changing the behavior of the government of Iran, which has been—and I think will continue to be—to encourage violence and disorder in Iraq.” Trita Parsi of the National Iranian-American Council, in this CFR.org podcast, warns that if negotiations on Iraq “do not take into account a wider range of issues in the region and take place in a mindset of enmity—that narrative of U.S.-Iranian relations that has existed on both sides—then it’s difficult to see how talks can make a lot of headway.”