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Yes, We Really Must Talk With Iran

Charles Knight and Chris Toensing

If American troops are ever to come home from Iraq and Iraqis are to have a decent chance at peace and prosperity, the United States must open up a new chapter in its Middle Eastern diplomacy. The Iraq Study Group in 2006 made this point when it called for "diplomatic dialogue, without preconditions." The Bush administration has largely ignored this advice.

The diplomatic challenge before the United States and the international community is to secure non-intervention of neighboring states in Iraqi affairs and to nurture a substantial international commitment to long-term Iraqi recovery from its decades of war, sanctions and authoritarian rule. To meet this challenge, the United States will need a new policy in the broader region.

Probably the most important and most difficult initiative, given American political attitudes, is to engage Iran and Syria in non-coercive "give-and-take" diplomacy addressing bilateral issues. The Iraq war has strengthened Iran's position, not weakened it as the war's architects once hoped. The policy of isolating Iran as a "rogue state" is no longer viable. If the United States is to make progress in exiting Iraq it must be willing to treat Iran as a peer state. This will be unwelcome news in Washington, but it is a reality the United States must deal with, and the sooner the better.

New diplomacy with Iran and Syria should have a wide-ranging scope to afford the U.S. maximum advantage. Talks of this scope should also address what else Syria and Iran could do, beyond pledging non-interference in Iraq, to calm regional tensions.

These talks should be part of a vigorous series of "structured engagements" with U.S. allies Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The engagements may need to be sequenced in particular ways to ensure maximum confidence; Iran, for example, may need to be reassured of Turkish pledges of non-intervention in northern Iraq. The United States should strongly encourage Turkey to allow processes of Iraqi reconciliation to resolve the question of Kirkuk. Bilateral talks with the neighbor states will also afford the U.S. forums where it can emphasize and demonstrate its commitment to an expanded International Compact with Iraq under U.N. auspices.

The United States should call for the establishment, as part of the existing International Compact with Iraq, of an International Support Group comprising the five permanent Security Council members, Iraq's six neighbors and a representative of the U.N. secretary-general. Within this Support Group, the United States should seek an agreement on a code of conduct for international relations with Iraq, emphasizing the principle of non-interference, an agreement on common goals and compromises required for the stabilization of Iraq, and collaborative support for a reinvigorated internal Iraqi reconciliation process.

The Support Group should also have a standing forum for sharing and addressing security concerns related to Iraq. It can work to counter incitement of religious, sectarian or ethnic animosities within Iraq by encouraging legislation and statements against incitement by political and civil society leaders in the region. It should also persuade neighboring states to redouble efforts to control their borders with Iraq, including rigorous programs to crack down on recipients of smuggled Iraqi oil and any remaining infiltration of foreign fighters.

The United States can also use its diplomatic leverage to convince Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries to play a key role in underwriting Iraqi economic development by forgiving the debt bequeathed to Iraq by the deposed regime of Saddam Hussein. Kuwait can help significantly by canceling or deferring payments of reparations for the 1990 Iraqi invasion ordered by Saddam's regime.

It will not be easy for U.S. leaders to make these diplomatic moves and there can be no guarantee of success. Indeed, the level of distrust and fear shared among the parties to negotiations will make any diplomatic progress difficult.

The United States must be prepared to offer incentives if it is to get cooperation from nations it currently treats disdainfully and sometimes openly threatens with military action. But if the United States does not soon face into what it must do, the price it pays to exit Iraq will only grow steeper.  

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Charles Knight is co-director of the Project on Defense Alternatives (PDA) and Chris Toensing is executive director of the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP). They were founding members of the Task Force for a Responsible Withdrawal from Iraq.

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