Today's date:
Winter 2007

Talking to Tehran

Reza Aslan is the Iranian-American author of No god but God, a history of Islam.

Istanbul — The august members of the Iraq Study Group (ISG) have caused quite a stir in Washington by suggesting that success in Iraq may be impossible to achieve without the assistance of Iraq’s neighbors, particularly Syria and Iran. Perhaps Syria could be persuaded to join American efforts to stabilize Iraq, the ISG’s detractors argue, but why would Iran help the United States? After all, as Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman noted upon the report’s release, “Iran has exactly the opposite interest in Iraq than we have.”

Well, not exactly.

It is true that the regional interests of the US and Iran are deeply at odds, especially with regard to such thorny issues as the fractious Lebanese government and the ceaseless cycle of violence between Israel and the Palestinians. And there is no doubt that Iran has played a significant role in nurturing violence and instability in Iraq by funneling money and weapons to Shiite militias like the ghoulish Mahdi Army. However, on at least three key concerns, the US and Iran are very much in agreement.

First, neither country wants Iraq to become a safe haven for al-Qaida and other jihadists from around the world. Perhaps more than any other country in the region, Iran recognizes the existential threat posed to it by jihadism’s virulently anti-Shiite and anti-Persian ideology. In fact, the Iranians were battling jihadism, and specifically the forces of al-Qaida, long before most Americans had ever heard of Osama bin Laden.

Second, both countries want desperately to keep Iraq from fracturing into independent Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish states. There is much talk in Washington that partition would actually benefit the Iranians because it would give them an even firmer foothold among Iraq’s Shiite majority. That may be true. But partition would also result in an independent Kurdistan, which is something Iran, battling its own unruly and dispossessed Kurdish population, could not abide.

Finally, and somewhat ironically, the US and Iran are perfectly united in their desire for a speedy yet responsible withdrawal of American forces from Iraq (that fact alone should be incentive enough for Iran’s cooperation with the ISG report). Iran cannot tolerate the long-term presence of American troops on its border. And while it has worked hard to foil America’s plans for Iraq, the truth is that if Iran really wanted to destabilize Iraq, it could unleash a wave of terror in that country unlike anything the US has witnessed thus far. That it has not is an indication that Iran recognizes it has much to lose from a fractured and chaotic Iraq. When all is said and done, America can (and still may) simply pack up and go home. Iraq’s neighbors will be forced to bare the brunt of the resulting humanitarian crisis for years, perhaps decades, to come.

Already, some 1.6 million Iraqis have fled their ravaged country. While the majority has crossed into Syria and Jordan, thus far only about 50,000 refugees have fled to Iran. But unlike the Iraqis flooding into Syria and Jordan, Iran’s refugees are not middle-class Sunnis; they are the destitute Shia. Iran’s barely functioning economy cannot hope to absorb the hundreds of thousands of refugees that would inevitably cross its borders in the event of a full-scale civil war in Iraq.

There are those who believe that the concessions Iran’s leaders would require for their assistance in Iraq would be simply untenable. At the very least, Iran will demand greater flexibility from the US vis-à-vis its nuclear ambitions. But considering that there is little the US can now do to keep Iran from pursuing its civilian nuclear program, such a concession is not so problematic as it seems. There are still plenty of options left—including security guarantees and economic incentives—to ensure that Iran’s nuclear tinkering does not evolve into a full-fledged weapons program. Of course, pursuing these options will require diplomacy and dialogue.

And yet, President Bush has said repeatedly that he will talk to Iran only when it changes its behavior. This is both disingenuous and infantilizing (not to mention infantile). Dialogue with the US is not a reward for good behavior. Dialogue, as the Iraq Study Group’s venerable co-chair James Baker reminded the Senate, is a means by which behavior can be changed.

In any case, it is time to stop pretending that the US does not deal with dictators or rogue regimes or, for that matter, with terrorists. It is precisely this kind of ideological posturing that plunged the US unnecessarily (and unpreparedly) into Iraq in the first place.