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Parlaying over Baghdad

Marwan Bishara, Al Jazeera's senior political analyst


Talabani (left) met with Ahmadinejad during a November 2007 visit to Tehran [GALLO/GETTY]

February 15, 2008

Iran's announcement that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the country's president, will meet Jalal Talabani, his Iraqi counterpart, in Baghdad on March 2 was met with American silence even though it coincided with Tehran's cancellation of a fourth round of talks with Washington on Iraq's future.

The postponement, most likely triggered by last week's assassination of Imad Moghniyeh, a senior Hezbollah commander and ally, should not undermine the two countries' pursuit of a pragmatic and common accommodation on Iraq.

This accommodation began last year with the US military's recognition of Iranian efforts in restraining armed Iraqi Shia factions.

It was followed by the publication of a National Intelligence Estimate NIE report in November, which discounted the possibility of Iran developing nuclear weapons.

Since then, Gulf countries have been given the nod to ease tensions with Iran. The Gulf Cooperation Council asked Ahmadinejad to address their annual meeting in Doha, while the Saudi monarch invited him to fulfil the Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca in December.

But, the US and Iran seem to be arriving at an impasse in Iraq.

On the one hand, the US will not allow Tehran to manipulate or dominate the Iraqi Shia-controlled government, and by extension, Iraq as a whole.

For its part, Iran will not accept a long-term US military presence in Iraq, particularly as the Bush administration has continued to advocate regime change in Tehran (the US spends $75 million annually to destabilise the Iranian regime).

The US has refrained from its assumed preparation for air strikes against military and nuclear installations inside Iran, while Tehran has kept a check on its presumed support and incitement of armed Shia organisations and other anti-American resistance groups.

When the representatives of both countries finally do meet, they could very well transform these positions into long-term arrangements.

This is especially important if the US plans to negotiate with the Iraqi government "the basic parameters for the US presence in Iraq beyond 2008", as Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, and Robert Gates, the secretary of defence, opined in the Washington Post last week.

By any standard, such complicity is no victory for 'democracy and freedom', but would stem American military and financial losses in Iraq.

For Iran, such an agreement would not be a revolutionary act or a principled position on the part of the ayatollahs but could raise the prospect of a real sharing of influence in Iraq and prevent the US from carrying out air raids on its soil.

A dependent Iraq

Today, Washington and Tehran favour a weak Iraqi government, one that is dependent on money and arms from the US, and Shia backing from Iran.

This does not mean that the violence will stop. Rather, it will continue unabated, but not to the point where it will disturb the status quo, unravel the army into militias, or embarrass the Pentagon.

But it will neither ebb to such a low level so as to allow Iraq to stand on its own as a stable and sovereign state.

In such a scenario, certain Sunni factions would be welcomed to join or rejoin a coalition government for political expediency rather than true political reconciliation.

Such accommodation is possible as it is beneficial for the mostly ambitious and cynical leaderships running the show in the US and Iran - both of whom want to claim Iraq.

In the process, Iraq is expected to continue to serve as a buffer between Iran and the 'Sunni monarchies and regimes'.

And Iraqis will continue to be held hostage to geopolitical accommodation or friction between Washington and Tehran in their country.

Beyond Iraq

Could such strategic detente expand beyond Iraq to the near Middle Eastern region or even Palestine and Lebanon?

Not when leaders need to incite against foreign 'evils' in order to cultivate domestic support for strategic expansion.

Furthermore, Israel refuses to sit idly by as the US accommodates its regional nemesis.

That is why tensions could erupt when geopolitical needs arise or the domestic scene requires it.

On the nuclear front, US efforts to strengthen sanctions against Iran will continue - but mostly as a way to pressure Tehran to be more accommodating in Iraq.

In all likelihood, this is the kind of 'soft power' that is meant to preclude - not pave the way for - the use of 'hard power'.

Germany (which Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, visited last week), Russia and China have presumably agreed to new sanctions, but have nonetheless continued to strengthen their commercial ties with Iran.

In the final analysis, this will be a 'no-war, no-peace' scenario that maintains all the characteristics of a conflict that justifies military security, and all the ingredients of an understanding that avoids a regional conflagration.

:: Article nr. 41190 sent on 16-feb-2008 16:55 ECT


Link: english.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/FBA08C7D-98A1-45EC-BADE-1641973537A7.htm

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