May 06, 2008

Who Stopped the Talks?

Dr. iRack took note of some big news today: the Iranians have decided to halt talks with the United States over the security situation in Iraq until American forces stop their assault on Sadr City. According to the New York Times:

The suspension of talks by Iran is hard to read. It comes on the heels of a disclosure by the American military that among the evidence it has collected of intervention by Iran is documentation of training camps near Tehran run by Lebanese Hezbollah militants. That information was given to an Iraqi delegation to present to Iranian officials last week. But Iranian politics is a game of shadows with so many crosscutting interests that it is hard to say what Iran’s goal may be.

Two things are clear. The talks have not borne much fruit, so suspending them is almost cost free, at least in the short term. The downside is that the talks have been a way for the two countries, which do not have diplomatic relations, to have face-to-face conversations. Several Iraqi politicians said they believed that the Iranian suspension was as much in retaliation for the United States’ criticism of Iran’s nuclear program as it was for Iraq policy.

“Some Iranian officials believe that Iraq is a better location to pressure the Americans over Iran’s diplomatic crisis with them,” Ali al-Dabbagh, an Iraqi government spokesman, told Al Hurra, a satellite channel, on Monday evening.

In addition, Iran loses nothing in Iraq by denouncing strikes on Shiite civilians, especially since it has also said it approves of the Iraqi government’s effort to halt the activities of illegal militias. While those two positions may sound contradictory, they are plausible here. The Iraqi government also says it wants to help civilians and is taking aim only at the militias. The reality is that when forces go after insurgents in urban areas, it is impossible to avoid hitting some innocents as well.

U.S. strikes in Sadr City are aimed at JAM factions rocketing the Green Zone and attacking U.S. forces (including attacks with Iranian made weapons). In this context, the current U.S. position seems to be that the Iranians want it both ways: they want to keep dialing up the violence in Baghdad but then demand an end to the U.S. (counter-)offensive before talks on calming the overall security situation can resume. Blame for the failure in diplomacy seems to reside squarly on the shoulders of Tehran.

However, the picture may be more complicated. Readers will recall that, in Basra, Iran intervened to de-escalate the conflict (not because they're nice, but because they sought to avoid an all-out intra-Shia civil war in the south). When violence spilled over into Baghdad, on the other hand, the Iranians seemed content to keep backing Shia militants in an attempt to bloody American noses. But Dr. iRack has heard credible RUMINT that Iran also offered to initiate talks to help end the fighting in Sadr City in the context of wider discussions on the full range of U.S.-Iranian disputes--that is, the kind of sweeping diplomatic engagement many Iran analysts now recommend--but the United States rejected the overture. Scattered news reports seem to corroborate this RUMINT. According to a recent article in the Christian Science Monitor:

During the fighting [in Basra] in late March and early April, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani appealed for . . . [Qods Force chief Brig. Gen. Qassem Soleimani's] help to end the violence at a meeting on the Iran-Iraq border. Mr. Talabani, an ethnic Kurd who fielded his own Kurdish militia against Saddam Hussein from northern Iraq, has known General Soleimani for years, when Iran was Talabani's primary conduit of cash and arms.

Within a day fighting stopped. The Iraqi president also returned to Baghdad with a message to the Americans that Iran wanted to begin discussions on all issues – not just Iraq, Western diplomats say. Apparently viewing it as a stalling tactic, the Americans did not accept.

In other words, we "halted" talks before the Iranians did.

Why? Maybe because we didn't think the offer was serious. But there may be another explanation. In recent weeks, Dr. iRack has been at a number of events with very senior U.S. officials discussing Iran's lethal involvement in Iraq. To a man, these officials have, over the past month, been rocketed by weapons made in Iran (although direct links to the regime remain murky). Dr. iRack is no psychologist, but key U.S. figures on the ground in Baghdad just don't seem to be in the mood to talk to folks with American blood an their hands while they're being shelled. Perfectly understandable human reaction. But it may be worth considering that a time of heightened violence and growing risks of a wider conflict both inside Iraq and between the United States and Iran is precisely the time when more assertive diplomacy is required.