Looking for a Date, Maybe More

By David Ignatius
Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Great Satan seeks Axis-ette of Evil. Object: Short-term companionship, relief of stress, "exit strategy." If first date works out, a longer-term relationship may be possible. GS is a muscular guy, regular churchgoer, tough talker but sentimental weakness for democracy, who needs a partner with a yen for cleaning up the neighborhood. You? Well . . . surprise me. Smoking and uranium enrichment are no-nos.

The Bush administration has been posting a serious version of this "in search of" notice about Iran for months in the chat rooms of international diplomacy. Would-be matchmakers have tried to help, in quiet meetings between former officials and exchanges through intermediaries. A complicating factor has been the split in both countries between "realists" who want dialogue and hard-liners who frame issues in moralistic language that allows little wiggle room.

Now, after almost 30 years of official enmity, a U.S.-Iranian conversation seems about to start in earnest, focused initially on mutual steps to achieve political stability in Iraq. The moving force has been America's ambassador to Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad, who won White House approval last fall to seek such meetings. Khalilzad got some useful political cover last week when Iraqi Shiite leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim asked the Iranians to meet with the United States. Two days later Iran's national security adviser, Ali Larijani, announced that Tehran was ready to talk.

The talks in Baghdad aren't likely to begin for a few weeks, until Iraq's political leaders have made progress in forming a new government. U.S. officials aren't discussing what the agenda might be, but it's sure to be limited at first to Iraqi security issues. Khalilzad explained the U.S. stance this way in an interview with CBS: "Our goal will be to encourage cooperation as well as to halt support for extremist groups, training, arms, intelligence, Revolutionary Guard presence. Those are all points of concern."

The talks with Iran are an important step in the right direction. The two countries have a common interest in stabilizing Iraq. The worst thing that could happen, from Iran's standpoint, would be a civil war that led the United States to withdraw its troops quickly, before it could secure a democratic government that, given Iraq's demography, will be Shiite-led. So the two sides start with similar goals.

On a broader level, I doubt that the United States can stabilize the Middle East without building a new regional framework that includes Iran. Right now the Iranians are poised to obstruct America at every crossroads -- in Lebanon, Syria, the Palestinian territories and even Persian Gulf states such as Kuwait and Bahrain. The Iranians aren't supermen, but they do have a network of dangerous proxies. A successful U.S. policy for the region must take account of Iranian interests, and vice versa. The alternative is war. That may become inevitable if diplomacy fails, but it's a ghastly prospect.

I hope the talks will begin cautiously, with a discussion of issues affecting Iraqi security and what steps the two sides can take to stabilize an explosive situation. I hope the U.S.-Iranian dialogue can broaden to a regional discussion that would bring in Iraq's other neighbors: Turkey, Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

If these U.S.-Iranian talks on Iraq make progress, the right next step is to engage other issues affecting the two countries' security. Inevitably, that means direct talks about the Iranian nuclear program. That dialogue is overdue. As Stanford University scholars Abbas Milani, Michael McFaul and Larry Diamond argue in an influential new paper making the rounds in the Bush administration, "The only viable strategy . . . is a new U.S. policy on Iran that combines negotiations in the short run with a principled long-term quest for peaceful regime change."

My friend Ali Ettefagh, an Iranian businessman, sends me outrageous jokes and parodies he finds on the Internet. In recent weeks, as the U.S.-Iranian nuclear showdown escalated, he was sending pictures of luxury apartments and shopping centers in Iran, and investment plans for developing the Iranian economy -- so that I wouldn't think Iran's firebrand president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was the country's only voice. I asked him this week what Iranians thought about meeting with the Great Satan. It was "the talk of the town," he said. Iranians were tired of the "war of nerves," he explained, "and the uncertainty of whether they will bombed by this weekend!" Americans would probably express similar sentiments.

Big political developments often begin with little steps. The talks between America and Iran will start small, but they connect with the biggest issue in the world: how to stabilize a Middle East that is still shaking from the tremors of the 1978 Iranian revolution. We've waited nearly 30 years to reengage. Let's hope both sides can seize a historic opportunity.


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