"Unprecedented secret letter to the White House"
Scott Peterson, of the Christian Science Monitor, addresses the potential help Iran could provide in Iraq. Not the change in tone identified with a secret letter in 2003. I had never heard of this correspondence (my emphasis):
Earlier this year, both Washington and Tehran approved Iraq-specific talks between their officials in Baghdad, though none are known to have occurred. More recently, Bush has spoken disparagingly of bringing Iran into the Iraq equation.
"Fundamentally, the Bush administration refuses to have comprehensive talks with the Iranians," says a Western diplomat, noting that US officials continue to say that Iran is a top state sponsor of terrorism and that its nuclear-power program is a cover to build atomic weapons. Iran rejects those charges. "[But] even if you plan to get in some sort of contact, it makes sense to say 'never,' " as an initial bargaining stance, says the diplomat.
The White House has wanted to limit any dialogue with Iran to Iraq, or, in a separate offer last June, to the nuclear file. But as Iraq has deteriorated, and the demand for talks with Iran has intensified, Iran feels increasingly that it can demand much in exchange.
James Baker, co-chair of the Iraq Study Group, which met with Javad Zarif, Iran's ambassador to the UN, has downplayed the likelihood of Iran's assistance.
"We're not naive enough to think that in this case [Iran] may want to help. They probably don't," Mr. Baker testified to Congress last week. "The president authorized me to approach the Iranian government. I did so. And they in effect said ... we would not be inclined to help you this time around."
Iran's price, analysts here say, could be a broader package that would, at the least, include ending action by the UN Security Council to draft a sanctions resolution over Iran's nuclear issue.
Iran may expect the US to accept its determination to continue enriching uranium, something the White House says must be suspended before talks. Recognition of the regime, after 27 years of estrangement, and a guarantee that Iran will not be a military target, are top priorities as well.
"I have no doubt, that if there is a serious attempt by the US administration for a comprehensive resolution of the problems between Iran and the US, Iran would be more than ready to help," says Nasser Hadian-Jazy, a political scientist at Tehran University. "But it is not going to be just about Iraq. Iran would be much more willing to do more, if it knew there is going to be a comprehensive [deal] with the US."
This calculus in Tehran represents a dramatic turnaround from the spring of 2003, when Iran's clerical leadership worried that they were "next" after Iraq on the target list for regime change.
Feeling vulnerable, Iran sent an unprecedented secret letter to the White House, offering to talk about everything from its controversial nuclear program to support for Hizbullah and Hamas militants.
But the Bush team dismissed the offer, and even scolded the Swiss ambassador in Tehran at the time for passing the message on. Today, with the US bogged down in Iraq and looking for a facesaving way out, it is the Iranians who want to define the terms of any cooperation.
They often cite Afghanistan in 2001, when Iran helped the US defeat the Taliban and push out Al Qaeda with extensive intelligence and diplomatic aid, only to be labeled part of the "axis of evil" weeks later.
"It's a game. We think the US wants to use Iranian power to solve their problem in Iraq before the presidential election in 2008," says Mr. Mohebian. "After victory ... then it will be back to the old 'axis of evil.' "
A final Iranian decision will await more signals from the US, because "up to now, we hear only slogans," says Mohebian. "We don't want to look to the mouths of US leaders, but at their hands. After helping in Afghanistan, what was the result? It only helped the radicals in Iran."
Iran and the US share an interest in a stable Iraq that remains intact and is no longer a breeding ground for extremists, Iranian analysts say. But the Afghanistan case has made the regime uncertain.
"Now, if Iran helps the US contain the violence in Iraq, and [afterward the US] has a free hand, then 'OK, we're going to bomb you now. You are the next target,' " says Mr. Hadian-Jazy. "They should know which road they are putting a step in. They want to be sure."
Iran can't bring stability to Iraq, but it can use its influence - especially with fellow Shiites who run the embattled government - to ease the sectarian violence and help forge a unity government.
"The situation wouldn't be worse if Iran said it would help," says a European diplomat. "But the question is: How much better would it be?"
"[Iran] sees all this as pieces of a great big game, [and] the price will continue going up as the situation gets worse," says the diplomat. "The American request would include intelligence help - and this is very uncommon - [because Iranian] eyes and ears on the ground are the best in Iraq."