Bush Administration’s Iraq dilemma

Panel’s likely call to engage Iran and Syria will be hard to heed.

THE Bush administration is caught between a rock and a hard place.

A 10-member bipartisan panel on Iraq is expected today to call on Washington to engage Iran and Syria, both seen as bitter rivals to the United States for influence in the Middle East.

The panel believes the move would stabilise neighbouring Iraq and improve the chances of easing overall regional tensions by boosting the prospects of an Arab-Israeli settlement.

But it would take a dramatic shift in the position of President George W. Bush’s administration to accept the unprecedented recommendations of the Iraq Study Group.

The White House has up to now resisted firmly any dealings with Iran, which Mr Bush named – together with North Korea and Iraq – as part of an “axis of evil” in 2002, shortly after the Sept 11, 2001, terror attacks.

Administration insiders have revealed that the US would consider talking to Iran and Syria if the Baker-Hamilton commission made the recommendation. But they remain doubtful whether any political accommodation could be reached with these two countries.

Two glaring factors stand in the way.

One is the growing self-confidence of Iran and, by extension, its rhetoric as it revels in America’s woes in Iraq, Mr Bush’s crushing defeat in the mid-term congressional polls and his difficulty in pushing through United Nations sanctions against Teheran.

The second, and perhaps more important, factor is that Mr Bush is now in the twilight of his presidency, and sees little “political benefit” in pursuing a dialogue with such countries – or even accepting some of the other suggestions of the panel, analysts argue.

But for all the bluster and resistance, the US leader might just be forced to talk to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.

Pentagon adviser Daniel Goure told The Straits Times that the most likely format would be a roundtable of regional states plus the US and Britain meeting to discuss Iraq. It would be similar to the session both countries attended to discuss Afghanistan after the US-led war there in 2001.

Those talks appeared to herald a thaw in relations but Iran, which felt it supported the US in that conflict, was stunned with Mr Bush’s “axis of evil” statement, thus dashing hopes of rapprochement.

Indeed, observers count nine times in the past 25 years when an effort to start talks, by one side or the other, had failed. Negotiations did not progress because one side felt it could dictate terms.

Dr George Perkovich, a leading Iran expert at the Washington- based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is among those who believe that the administration would eventually have to deal directly with Iran. Instead, the biggest hurdle may lie with Teheran.

Would Iran want to talk with the “Great Satan”, given that Washington is threatening sanctions against Teheran for its nuclear programme?

Speaking to the Council on Foreign Relations last week, Dr Perkovich explained: “It’s not clear to me the Iranians want to talk because I think – at least at the presidential level in Iran, the view would be ‘Yes, we’ll talk to the United States if it’s prepared to talk about the terms of its surrender to us’.

“But we Iranians aren’t going to have a dialogue with the United States where they are going to demand things and somehow we’re supposed to be accommodating their demands. That just isn’t going to happen.”

Iran will want to see a change in what it sees as a hostile US attitude.

Will Mr Bush cave in? Domestic considerations are crucial here.

Dr Goure argues that there is little incentive for the US President to do anything the Iraq Study Group proposes, which may also include a drawdown of US troops in Iraq by 2008.

“Why should he? He has lost the mid-term elections. He has no more elections to fight. There is no political benefit for him to carry out any of the suggestions of the commission. He still believes in this mission to liberate Iraq.”

And, at least on Iran, the President has his supporters.

On Sunday, Mr Joseph Lieberman, who was re-elected recently as an independent Democratic senator, said: “Asking Iran and Syria to help us succeed in Iraq is like your local fire department asking a couple of arsonists to help put out the fire.”

But in a Democrat-controlled Congress, this could well be a minority view. If anything, support is growing across the political aisle for the commission’s proposals, which are really part of a congressional-inspired effort to find a solution to the Iraq quagmire.

It will be difficult for the Bush administration to remain ambivalent and agnostic about it.

JUST HOW HELPFUL IS THIS?

“Asking Iran and Syria to help us succeed in Iraq is like your local fire department asking a couple of arsonists to help put out the fire.”
SENATOR JOSEPH LIEBERMAN

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