Middle East — 30 March 2006

As Iranians celebrate their New Year (Norouz), political analysts and commentators are in frenzy over the forthcoming talks between Washington and Tehran over Iraq. The talks come at a critical time for the US and Iran. Bush’s popularity rating is low domestically and Iran continues to face international pressure over its nuclear programme. Both sides have stated that they were invited by Iraqi officials to meet in order to provide a solution to the chaotic situation in Iraq; although it is likely that US officials had a part to play in prodding Iraqi officials to make contact with their old adversary. Importantly, both sides also made it clear that no topic would be on the agenda apart from Iraq. As a result a number of questions arise: is this possible? What is the expected outcome of the talks? And what is the reaction of the Arab countries to the talks?

When both sides decide to meet, it is expected that the US will ask the Iranians to do as much as possible to calm the situation in Iraq. In return it is expected that the Iranians will ask for something in return for their co-operation. From previous experience of politics in the Middle East there is a policy of give and take when discussions take place between states; for example the stop-start Israeli-Palestinian peace process has been characterised by demands from both parties. It is likely that Iran will table demands in return for any effort to improve the security situation in Iraq hence it is likely that the controversial nuclear issue will be brought to the table as a key issue in the talks. As the US leads the tough front against the Iranian nuclear programme, Iran will try to achieve a change in US policy towards its nuclear programme.

Iran and the US will use the talks for domestic objectives as well. For example, in Iran the new conservatives led by Ahmadnejad will use the talks to argue that they have given the US the opportunity to change its attitude and behaviour towards Iran and if however, the talks fail, this will provide the justification for the continuation of firebrand politics in Iran. The US will use the talks to improve its image domestically and in the rest of the world by presenting itself as trying to solve the desperate situation in Iraq by talking to a country where no diplomatic relations have existed for over 26 years. However, if the talks fail it will add more weight behind voices in the US administration calling for military action against Iran’s nuclear programme.

In the Middle East there is already concern between Arab governments as they think that the talks will give Iran more power and credibility in the region over the Arab governments themselves; which are already facing a crisis of legitimacy domestically and regionally. In addition the fragile Iraqi government is not happy with the upcoming talks; which they think will question the legitimacy of the already weak Iraqi government.

There is no doubt, the talks will definitely break the ice between the two sides; depending upon the negotiators selected, authority given to them and the agenda put on the table. There are 3 possibilities that emerge from the talks

1) There is agreement upon the issue that Iran has an important role in calming the situation in Iraq and in return the US accepts to discuss the nuclear issue as part of this agenda.

2) The failure of the talks, due to a US refusal to discuss the nuclear issue and in return Iran refuses to play any role in the security dimension in Iraq.

3) No agreement or failure- but the talks act as a stepping stone to further talks in the future between the US and Iran. But which possibility materialises out of the three is a guessing game at the moment and we will have to wait and see what the outcome is.

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