Hamid Ansari

What direction will the U.S.-Iran dialogue, scheduled to begin on Monday, take?

COQUETRY HAS a place in life, and in politics. It has an element of intrigue and caprice. Nations indulge in it. The signals emanating from the current postures of the United States and Iran are truly fascinating. Lord Byron credited the ancient Persians with three skills: to draw the bow, to ride, and to speak the truth. Time and experience may have modulated some of these, transmuted others; the end product remains formidable.

American administrations, legislators, opinion-makers have themselves to blame for their myopic vision and frigid policies. They erred in 1979 and in subsequent decades added to follies in geometrical proportions. Isolation, containment, demonology, and outright hostility failed to produce the desired results. Iraq broke the camel's back. Today, more and more Americans are coming round to the view that Iran remains "the ultimate test" of American leadership in a new world. The New York Times spoke for most when, on May 22, it opined editorially of "a grand bargain" that would include offer of full diplomatic relations and security guarantees "should Iran agree to verifiably contain its nuclear ambitions."

And yet, this is precisely what was offered by Tehran in the spring of 2003, and rejected out of hand. So have other Iranian offers, including an external share in the ownership of the Iranian nuclear facilities. These are testified to by western commentators. Now, the outgoing Iranian Permanent Representative to the U.N. in New York, Javed Zarif (whose crucial role in the success of the 2001 Bonn conference on Afghanistan was acknowledged by American negotiators), has written a detailed account in the spring-summer issue of the Journal of International Affairs.

"The interests of Iran and the United States," writes Mr. Zarif, "have long been hostage to an outdated paradigm sustained by mutual mistrust and heavy historical baggage, and nurtured with facts or fiction generated by those benefiting from confrontation and war. Iran has a national security interest in restoring regional stability and preserving and strengthening disarmament and non-proliferation. But, preventing the manufactured `Iran threat' from becoming the next global nightmare requires a drastic change in the U.S. approach an approach that until now has impeded a genuine search for alternatives."

If American arrogance lost the opportunity in 2003, the credit for rejecting a U.S. overture in 2005 goes to Iran. On both occasions, control of the high ground in Iraq provided the impulse. Iran has the satisfaction of having judged the evolving situation in Iraq correctly; hence the American anxiety at Sharm al Sheikh, matched by Iranian coyness in equal measure. Both were reflective of the ground reality, graphically reflected by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad in The Guardian on May 19: "You can't move far in Basra without bumping into some evidence of the Iranian influence on the city" from the market place to the militias.

With so much at stake in terms of policies, interests, and national and individual egos, the enunciation of pre-negotiating positions is of considerable relevance. Henry Kissinger would describe the statesmen on the two sides as representing "vastly different cultures," fully aware that "mistakes are irretrievable."

Twin constraints

The U.S. policy of all options being on the table is, for the time being at least, modulated by the twin constraints of the Iraq quagmire and Congressional opinion. This does not prevent covert operations, said to be in full swing, particularly through Jundullah operating through the Sistan-Balochistan border. The financial squeeze resulting from the regime of sanctions imposed by the Security Council is also having an impact but will take much longer to be decisive. Regional opinion among friends in the Gulf Cooperation Council, as U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney discovered, remains strongly opposed to war and to economic disruption. The taking of five Iranian Revolutionary Guards hostage in Erbil would make the Iranians sweat a bit to develop counter weights, but can hardly be decisive.

The Iranian approach to negotiations, and to the regional situation, has been spelt out with some candour in recent weeks. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's talks in the United Arab Emirates and Oman focussed on stability in Iraq, security in the Persian Gulf, and economic cooperation and investments. He signalled willingness to talk to America while insisting on the latter's withdrawal from Iraq and the Gulf. Foreign Minister Manouchehr Muttaki said on May 5 that two conditions must be satisfied for a meeting of Foreign Ministers: serious political will and substantive discussion by experts on "core issues." Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Arghachi emphasised the need on May 10 for "an exit strategy" for the U.S. and structured "face saving withdrawal" from Iraq to prevent descent into chaos.

The most substantive senior level comment from Tehran came in a television interview given on May 17 by the former Foreign Minister, Ali Akbar Velayati, who is now Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's senior adviser on international affairs. He said (a) a specific request for talks on Iraq has been received from the U.S. and has been agreed to from a position of strength; (b) this request is not a political gesture and has been made because "their problems are increasing on a daily basis"; (c) "Iran does not intend to provide circumstances whereby the occupiers can end their occupation gracefully"; (d) Iran agreed to talks because the Iraqi government "and good allies of the Islamic republic who are in various posts in Iraqi administration including people who have spiritual influence in Iraq" asked Iran to end the crisis and the occupation and accept America's request; and (e) Iran has a duty to help the elected government of Iraq and will not remain indifferent to any attempt to "put another Saddam Hussein in Iraq."

Mr. Velayati added that negotiations would focus on Iraq and would not open the door for talks on other issues since talks can be useful only when they take place between countries in equal positions "without preconditions, claims, rudeness or negative propaganda." He was emphatic in his assertion that "the domestic mindset that negotiations with America will solve all our problems is a mirage"; the government's position on this is clear "but some ill-considered positions here in the country might send false signals to the other party. The other party might imagine that there are two groups of Iranians one group is eager for dialogue with the U.S. and the other group is against it." He refuted a suggestion that Iran dilute its support to the Palestinians and the Hizbollah in Lebanon and cited in support of his argument a remark of Imam Ali: "no nation was ever defeated unless it sat at home and waited for the enemy to come."

Mr. Velayati's remarks are indicative of internal debate (and disagreement) on the strategy and tactics for talks. This is unavoidably linked to a wider domestic debate in which Mr. Ahmadinejad triumphed over the reformists in 2005; the latter, however, have regained some ground. The American effort is to influence this debate through (familiar) funding activities; these end up providing ammunition to the security establishment in Tehran. Many dissidents, therefore, consciously avoid a western embrace.

A case in point is Akbar Ganji who wrote recently that "if the American goal is to achieve a just peace and regional tensions, inflaming the regime's fear seems unlikely to succeed... Unilateral action against Iran in the absence of an overall plan for regional peace and security will be seen by most people of the region as aimed at safeguarding Israel's supremacy and imposing an unjust peace on Palestinians and the Muslim world."

Political change in Iran, he added, is necessary but it "must not be achieved by foreign intervention" and can only be achieved by Iranians through "a sustained, non-violent civil campaign."

In the totality of this context, what possible direction would the talks scheduled for May 28 take? Both sides, for very different reasons, wish to discuss Iraq only. The U.S. would seek Iranian cooperation that may help pacification. The Iranians, recalling their Afghanistan experience with the Americans, would be in no mood to give something for nothing. The viewpoints would converge on creating conditions for stabilising the Maleki government; the Americans, however, would seek far-reaching adjustments and concessions to give a measure of satisfaction to the Iraqi Sunnis and Iraq's major Arab neighbours. Iran would insist, and America would not reject altogether, an end to American military presence in Iraq in its present form; the devil, however, would lie in the detail relating to the extent, manner and speed of withdrawal and on Mr. Velayati's insistence on not facilitating a graceful exit. Where would the meeting point be?

Neither side visualises an Iraq solution in a vacuum. The discussions inevitably would move to the region, to Iran's legitimate aspirations, and eventually to the threat perception of Iran as well as that of its neighbours in the Persian Gulf. For this to be meaningfully addressed, the umbrella of a Pax Americana would not suffice.

A new paradigm of regional security is indeed imperative. It cannot be developed without the U.S.; by the same token, it would not be adequate until all regional states and all others having a stake in the security and stability of the Gulf region are supportive. India, as a proximate neighbour, has a vital stake in the matter.

(The writer is a former Permanent Representative of India to the U.N.)