As Pressure for Talks Grows, Iran and Syria Gain Leverage

By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 16, 2006

The White House is under growing pressure to talk to Iran and Syria to help stabilize Iraq, but mounting violence in Iraq and the Bush administration's political woes give the negotiating edge to Tehran and Damascus and complicate any U.S. outreach, experts say.

The idea of talks is widely expected to be on the list of proposals that will come out of the Iraq Study Group report next month, because co-chairman and former secretary of state James A. Baker III and other members back engaging enemies as well as allies. British Prime Minister Tony Blair this week endorsed talking with Tehran and Damascus, with caveats. The CIA director and the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency said yesterday that talks could help. And an array of experts has encouraged the administration to reach out to the countries that have meddled most in Iraq.

But the Bush administration is already questioning the idea, and even supporters admit that full cooperation by both Iran and Syria may have little impact on the many-sided insurgency. Neither country has much sway over Iraq's Sunnis or the al-Qaeda branch in Iraq, as both are ruled by Shiites or Shiite offshoots.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, traveling yesterday to a conference in Vietnam, said that she is prepared to talk to "anybody, anywhere, anytime" under circumstances in which she believed progress was really possible. "I'm not afraid to talk to anyone," she told reporters. But she dismissed the idea that diplomacy offers any "magic bullets" for Iraq.

The United States has made multiple overtures to Tehran, particularly related to its controversial nuclear program. A year ago, Rice told Congress that Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. ambassador to Iraq, had been empowered to talk to his Iranian counterpart in Baghdad on Iraq.

"There's no lack of opportunity to talk to the Iranians," she told reporters. "The question is: Is there anything about Iranian behavior that suggests that they are prepared to contribute to stability in Iraq? And I have to say that at this point I don't see it."

Syria has given no indication that it is willing to be a stabilizing force anywhere in the region, including in Iraq, Lebanon and the Arab-Israeli dispute, she added. President Bashar al-Assad's government has "aligned itself with the forces of extremism," she said.

In a briefing Wednesday aboard Air Force One en route to Singapore, national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley all but rejected the idea. "What we need is less talk and more action by Iran," he said.

But experts on both sides of the Iraq debate argue that after decades of tension with both countries, Iran and Syria now have a common interest with the United States in preventing further turmoil in Iraq. "We've gone past the point of being desirable. It's absolutely necessary to talk to them," said Joseph Cirincione, vice president of the Center for American Progress.

Iran fears the spillover of Iraq's political problems on its own large Kurdish, Sunni and Arab minorities in the event of a full-scale civil war. It also was burdened with a refugee problem as more than 2 million people fled wars in neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan.

Syria is also looking for a way out of its isolation. And it fears that Kurdish separatism in Iraq would influence its own restive Kurdish population, said Theodore H. Kattouf, former U.S. ambassador to Syria.

"They have some hardheaded reasons to want to coordinate with us to make sure that our withdrawal, which they want, is not precipitous," said Geoffrey Kemp, a Reagan administration National Security Council staffer.

Yet prospects of U.S. success are limited, analysts warn. At the negotiating table, Iran and Syria would for the first time hold the trump cards after years of public rebukes and punitive sanctions, and would see any overture by Washington as a win for them. The administration could have achieved far more if it had talked to both countries from a position of strength on the eve of war in 2003 or last year, analysts say.

"Neither Iran nor Syria will do a favor for the U.S. without wanting something back -- and what both countries want are things that the U.S. is not willing to give them," said Shaul Bakhash, a George Mason University expert on Iran.

Cooperating with the United States also carries dangers. "Syria and Iran both believe that the U.S. is tilting at windmills and will not lend their leverage to a venture which they see as doomed," said Joshua Landis, a University of Oklahoma specialist who recently spent a year as a Fulbright scholar in Damascus.

Both countries have limited ability to solve the complicated morass of problems in Iraq. In testimony yesterday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, the CIA director, Gen. Michael V. Hayden, said Iran and Syria have varying degrees of influence on Iraq.

"Clearly, both governments could do more. If our dialogue with them could convince them to do more, that their interests are not served by a fracturing of Iraq, then I would say that might be useful," Hayden said.

But on the biggest issue of preventing full-scale civil war, Iran may not be able to rein in Iraq's Shiite militias. "Lots of people in the Shiite community are happy to take Iranian money and arms but they are not willing to take Iranian orders," said Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Staff writer Dafna Linzer contributed to this report.

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