As this issue of Crescent went to press, the Iranian and American ambassadors to Iraq were meeting in Baghdad to discuss the appalling situation in country. Little concrete is expected to come of the meeting, in the short term at least; its main significance is that it is the first formal diplomatic contact between the two countries since 1980, when Iranians captured the US embassy in Tehran -- popularly known as the “nest of spies” -- and the US broke off diplomatic relations in response. It is also a turnaround by the Bush administration, on two fronts. First, it had rejected the possibility of any talks with Iran about Iraq when the Baker Report on future American strategy in Iraq proposed such meetings late last year. And second, it had also said that it would not have any direct contact with Iran as long as Iran remained a “sponsor of terrorism” and refused to halt its nuclear programme.
Western political commentators have attributed the change in tack to a power struggle in Washington. The Bush administration has effectively divided into two camps, with neo-conservative hawks such as vice-president Dick Cheney and John Bolton, the US ambassador to the UN, calling for an increasingly militaristic approach, while the other camp, led by secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, and including such figures as Michael Hayden, the director of the CIA, Rice’s deputy John Negroponte, and under-secretary Nicholas Burns, advocating a more nuanced political and diplomatic approach. After months of vocally supporting the hawks, Bush has abruptly accepted the opposite argument; hence this meeting. Cheney, for one, has made his displeasure widely known.
As widely reported, the US’s utter failure in Iraq is undoubtedly a factor in this turnabout. There is, however, another major factor that has not been acknowledged, and is never likely to be in the West. This is the total imperviousness of the Iranian government to every sort of pressure placed on it in recent months. This pressure has included crude propaganda about president Ahmedinejad’s supposed “holocaust denial” and war-mongering against Israel; accusations that Iran supports “terrorists” in Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere; international pressure via the UN and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) regarding Iran’s nuclear programme; economic measures such as restrictions on Iranian banks; and provocative military exercises in the Persian Gulf; among many others, small and large. The Bush administration’s expectation was that Iran would quickly buckle under these attacks, and accede to the US’s major demands, particularly support for the Palestinian Islamic movements. For all Bush’s sabre-rattling, realists in Washington have long known that military action against Iran is not a genuine option. The US’s allies, particularly in Europe, have also long since recognised that Iran is not susceptible to such tactics.
The fact that Bush has changed tack does not mean, however, that such pressures will end. Even as the US was preparing for the meeting in Baghdad, attacks on Iran were intensifying; just days before the meeting, US officials were briefing that Iran was working with al-Qa‘ida and Sunni Arab militants in Iraq to prepare for a summer offensive against the US and its allies; the US and its allies attacked IAEA head Mohamed El-Baradei for saying that his agency had found no evidence that Iran is trying to weaponise its nuclear programme; and the Pentagon was despatching 19,000 troops in a convoy of 19 ships through the Straits of Hormuz in what was described as a calculated show of strength. Meanwhile Israelis, the neo-cons’ closest allies, were briefing journalists that Iran is increasing its support for Hizbullah and Palestinian resistance groups. Iran, for its part, showed its determination to stand firm by arresting three Iranians with ties to US government or pro-government bodies, and announcing the discovery of spy rings in several cities. Had the US wanted, it could have taken these as grounds for cancelling the proposed meeting, as some commentators demanded. The fact that it did not do so is itself a sign of weakness.
The US’s turnaround does not mark the end of its attempts to subvert and destroy the Islamic State, of course. It is, however, a sign that it recognises that its current strategy has failed, and that a new approach will be required. This itself is a success for the leadership of Imam Khamenei and the government of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, and should be recognised as such by all Muslims. The West will never end its war against independent Islamic states and movements; but a significant victory has been achieved.