Cordesman: U.S.-Iran Talks on Iraq Useful, But Unlikely to Produce Immediate Results

Anthony H. Cordesman, a well-known expert on Middle East political and military affairs, says the announced ambassadorial-level talks between Iran and the United States on Iraq security “may lay the groundwork for much better understanding and at least more official negotiations” between the two sides.

May 14, 2007

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Anthony H. Cordesman, a well-known expert on Middle East political and military affairs, says the announced ambassadorial-level talks between Iran and the United States on Iraq security “may lay the groundwork for much better understanding and at least more official negotiations between the United States and Iraq.” But he warns there is not agreement in either Washington or Tehran on the benefits of such talks and “the whole idea that somehow dialogue always produces beneficial results is, I think, misleading.”

It was announced over the weekend that the United States and Iran would hold ambassadorial-level talks in Baghdad about security in Iraq. Do you think there’s any reason to expect much from these talks?

We need to be very careful. First, it is doubtful they’re going to solve America’s problems in Iraq or produce some sudden deep rapprochement with Iran. Simply going from dual-track diplomacy to official dialogue is in itself a step forward, even if it has no immediate benefit. In the longer term it may lay the groundwork for much better understanding and at least more official negotiations between the United States and Iraq.

What would the United States actually like to see from the Iranians?

First, that Iran cease arms transfers and support to the Shiite militias, that it not train these and equip them as independent forces, that it not employ advisers and elements of its Quds Force and other elements of the Iranian military and intelligence services in Iraq. We would also like to see Iran work with the United States and other regional powers to try to bring conciliation between Arab Shiites and Arab Sunnis. In other words, we would like to see cooperation in creating a stable Iraq, and putting an end to both the insurgency and the various civil conflicts. Why Iran is going to want to do that at this point in time is much less clear.

Why do you think the United States has waited this long? There was a report last year that the then-U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilizad, had been told he could meet with the Iranians to talk about Iraq, but nothing ever happened.

As former U.S. diplomat James Dobbins has pointed out, we were able to have a limited dialogue and relationship with Iran in dealing with Afghanistan that turned out to be very constructive. It did produce cooperation at a time that was critical in bringing stability to western Afghanistan, and in ensuring that there weren’t divisions between Afghan Shiites and other Afghans. There was even then the option of going forward, actually under a far more favorable government in Tehran, since President Mohammed Khatami was still in charge. The Iranians at least offered the opportunity to extend this cooperation into Iraq. The United States at that time frankly felt it was so dominant in Iraq that it didn’t need Iranian support, and the Bush administration gave other Iranian objectives a much higher priority: non-proliferation, forcing Iran to accept Israel in peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, and pushing Iran to cease support for what the U.S. calls terrorist groups—particularly Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. There was also a general feeling that Iran’s buildup of forces inside the Persian Gulf region presented a different kind of threat. All of these factors delayed or prevented any kind of dialogue. It did demonstrate the neo-con belief, and the belief within the Bush administration, that the only way the United States could ever really deal with Iran was to change the regime.

That of course has led to constant speculation over the last several years about the U.S. planning for some kind of military attack to take out the Iranian nuclear facilities. Most experts now believe that’s not going to happen in this administration, don’t they?

We need to be very careful here. You have a number of different elements, particularly in Iranian eyes, but also in U.S. policy. You have a strong element still within the Bush administration which believes the Iranian regime is relatively fragile and the United States should seek to overthrow the Iranian regime. That has had support from both sides in Congress, and in fact, there is a legal mandate to spend money to try to change the Iranian regime. Now that funding has been spent relatively harmlessly and totally ineffectively on efforts to deal with the issue through media and political influence outside Iran. But Iranians still see this as perhaps the surface of a covert effort to overthrow the Iranian government.

The second threat that’s been perceived is a direct invasion. This would be a military effort to basically change the Iranian regime as well as deal with nuclear proliferation. That has been encouraged by reporting like that of Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker, but also by people who have gone out to the Gulf, retired officers and U.S. strategic experts, who have basically announced in the region that the Bush administration is covertly plotting to launch an invasion of Iran. Some people were saying this would occur in April of this year. It obviously didn’t happen, but this became such an urgent subject of concern that papers throughout the region were covering the fact that the United States had this covert plot to invade Iran and that the deployment of two aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf was a preparation for this.

The third dimension of this has been the risk of a U.S. or Israeli preemption of Iran’s nuclear capabilities. We’re really talking about three efforts that potentially are seen as threatening Iran. One of them, at least, has almost certainly never been undertaken seriously. That’s the concept of a land invasion. The other idea of regime overthrow has frankly been little more than a political force, although there are people in the United States and in Congress that believe groups like the People’s Mujahadeen (MEK) could somehow play a role in that. They ignore the fact that some of these groups represent people that systematically murdered American officers and personnel when I served in Iran [in the 1970s], and that [the People’s Mujahadeen] was one of the most vicious terrorist organizations in the history of Iran before it was driven out of the country. These are factors which are going to affect these talks one way or the other, and it’s important that people understand how this is perceived by Iran as distinguished from Americans. Also, we can’t ignore that the vice president reiterated that the United States might carry out a counter-proliferation strike or a preventive strike on Iran, and that military options were on the table just within the last month.

He said that when he was on the ship on the carrier in the Persian Gulf right? But I’ve had the impression the preemptive strike also was not a real threat right now.

This is going to be a constant of American contingency, which means they’re going to leave open the possibility of excursions almost indefinitely into the future. How real the prospect of such a strike in many ways depends on what U.S. perceptions are of how close Iran is to getting a nuclear weapon. At this point in time, the United States estimates this is likely to occur well after 2010. There also have been serious questions of, “If the United States is going to carry out such a strike, is it wise to do it now?” The argument is convincing that the United States should delay. First, to do this in the middle of the worst moment of its fighting in Iraq presents one set of problems. Second, the United States is publicly committed to diplomacy at the highest levels, working with its European allies, and the diplomatic card has not been exhausted. Third, the United States has a massive credibility problem, because it said there was an Iraqi nuclear missile threat. From a practical view, Iran has at least twenty-three known suspect facilities. Many of these are very large and dispersed. Only two of these really are large enough to represent a major capital investment in underground facilities. And Iran is only now putting enough equipment into one of those facilities, Natanz, to really justify a major strike. There isn’t a great deal of reason to go out and randomly destroy a large range of facilities, which are of very limited value, and which Iran can easily replicate, and which may actually be empty holes that Iran has dispersed its equipment, as distinguished from waiting until Iran’s effort is much more mature, its assets are worth a great deal more, and it would be much harder to replace in the event of a U.S. strike.

Let me move the question to the Iran side. What do you think Iran would like to see out of these talks, if anything?

It may be there is almost as little agreement in Iran as there is in the United States. This will be a talk between very skilled professional diplomats. And very often, professional diplomats look for stability, they look for solutions, they look for ways of avoiding war and they do not become bogged down in ideological issues. In an ideal world, there would be a common interest. The United States wants a stable Iraq . It is willing to accept an Iraq that doesn’t transform the Middle East. It certainly can’t see that it has a future in terms of bases in Iraq or that Iraq is a military springboard for action in other countries.

From Iran’s viewpoint, in theory, it should feel that conciliation, rather than a Shiite-nominated government, offers more hope of long-term stability. Cooperation would give it a true partner, or at least, neighbor, in Iraq, and perhaps ease its strategic problems with the United States as well as the problems that seem to be growing between Sunni and Shiite states as a result of both the fighting inside Iraq and the fact that many of the neo-Salafi extremist movements like al-Qaeda are as much opposed to the Shiite sect as they are to people from the West.

This is a rational argument, but the fact is the supreme leader and the president of Iran, and many of the military commanders of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, are people motivated by ideology. They see a United States which seems to be losing in Iraq, which is going to be politically forced out of the country. They see the rise of a Shiite-dominated government, and a weakening of the Sunnis. They see a peculiar strategic situation where the United States is effectively fighting the Sunni insurgency but not the Shiite militias, or at least the most radical elements, because they’ve stood aside. So the United States on the one hand appears to be headed toward a longer-term defeat on the war, on the other hand appears to be creating a Shiite-dominated Iraq, which would be led by parties which are very dependent on Iran. The SCIRI party, which is the largest member of the Shiite coalition, is led by Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, who recognizes the supreme leader in Iran as affecting all Shiites. Its militia, the Badr organization, was trained and organized by the Iranians. According to many reports, Muqtada al-Sadr, a rival Shiite leader, has been forced to take refuge in Iran, and whatever his initial reactions may have been to Iran, he’s presumably now more dependent.

So when you look at the ideological structure inside Iran, and you look at the sort of narrow, short-term motives they may have to talk to the United States, while in fact continuing to exploit the situation and seeking to both win in a much more direct sense in Iraq and to help cause the defeat of the United States to undermine its broader position in the gulf, I don’t think we can make a judgment now on what will happen. There really is a reason to talk at this level to find out exactly what’s going to happen. But the whole idea that somehow dialogue always produces beneficial results is, I think, misleading. For all the talk about the fact that the United States and Iran do not communicate, the truth is at a lower, less visible level, they’ve been communicating very directly and almost constantly ever since the fall of the Shah.