Could Iran help the US stabilize Iraq?

Pressure has mounted on the White House for direct talks with Tehran.

The word "compromise" is rarely invoked when the leaders of archenemies Iran or the United States speak about each other.

But as the crisis in Iraq deepens, President Bush is being asked by a growing chorus, from the Iraq Study Group to Mideast experts, to appeal directly to Iran for help.

So far in public – as well as through diplomatic channels, sources here say – Iran and the US are laying down irreconcilable, maximalist positions that reflect very different worldviews about what such contact should achieve.

But even if Mr. Bush were to set aside his approach to Iran as part of an "axis of evil," the question remains of whether Iran is willing to help the US out in Iraq – and if so, at what price.

"Now is not the best time [for Iran to help], because [American] intent is only to solve the problems of the US in Iraq, and not those of Iran," says Amir Mohebian, an editor of the conservative Resalat newspaper.

"If the US wants to solve its problems in Iraq, it must see that as a package" of issues with Iran, says Mr. Mohebian, who has close links with power centers in the Islamic Republic. "The US should consider Iran's new position in the region; not just as one country, but as a regional power."

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."

But such a request is far from certain. In a bid to talk over Iran's leaders, Bush has spoken kindly to the Iranian people, addressing their rich history and yearning for freedom, while accusing the government of supporting terrorism in Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, and Iraq, and secretly aiming for nuclear weapons.

Likewise, Iran's arch-conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – who has created friction with the West over comments about the destruction of Israel, and calling the Holocaust a "myth"– wrote a letter to the US public last week. Addressing "Noble Americans," Mr. Ahmadinejad said the American people were "God-fearing, truth-loving, and justice-seeking," according to an official translation, then blamed the administration for "blind and blanket support" of Israel, and for the "killing of hundreds of thousands of innocents" in Iraq that has not stopped terrorism.

"The sad experience of invading Iraq is before us all," he said, in an approach that contrasts sharply with that of his predecessor, President Mohamad Khatami, who touted a "dialogue of civilizations."

"As a counterpoint to George Bush and his irrational behavior, the right choice was not Mr. Khatami; the right choice was Mr. Ahmadinejad," says editor Mohebian. "If the US can calculate our behavior ... the US could attack us."

"Mr. Khatami showed all the pockets to [the US]," he adds. "But because the behavior of Ahmadinejad can't be forecast, [the US] can't calculate the reaction. So before any military action, they will think twice."

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