Negotiations With Iran and Syria Could Be a Step Forward

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Mark Weisbrot and Robert Naiman
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services - November 23, 2006
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Why should our government talk to Iran and Syria? The real question is, why shouldn't they? It costs nothing to do so, and there's good reason to believe it might help facilitate the orderly withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, so we don't have to leave Vietnam-style, lifting off the embassy in a helicopter. Talking to Iran and Syria could also help resolve concerns about Iran's uranium enrichment program and help convince Palestinian and Lebanese groups allied with Iran and Syria to rely more on politics and less on violence in advancing their aims. In 2003 Iran offered to negotiate with the US on these issues towards a "grand bargain" but was rebuffed by Washington.

By refusing to talk, our government appears to our allies in Europe and the Middle East like the Groucho Marx character in "Duck Soup" -- so driven by ego that we are willing to start wars because we fear that others don't want peace..

Of course, such talks will not resolve the civil war in Iraq unless our government makes a commitment to leaving that country, and leaving right away.

But the alternative to negotiation is war, which most Americans are against. This applies to Iran as well as Iraq. A recent poll by Princeton Survey Research Associates published in Newsweek found that 54 per cent of respondents oppose air strikes against military targets and suspected nuclear sites in Iran, while 76 per cent believe the U.S. should not send ground troops to take control of the country.

Even inside the Beltway, momentum is building for U.S. talks with Iran and Syria. The bipartisan Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group is expected to recommend doing so when it issues its report in December. Robert Gates, President Bush's nominee to replace Donald Rumsfeld as Defense Secretary, has written in favor of engaging Iran.

It was wrong to invade Iraq and equally wrong to stay there. The biggest mistake that many people have made since the invasion of Iraq has been to accept the argument that even though we had no legitimate reason to invade the country, the US occupation later became necessary to avoid civil war. This was the same false argument that kept us in Vietnam for many years after it was clear that we did not belong there. It should now be clear that the opposite is true – the US occupation has spurred and legitimized the most extreme violence, which then spilled over into sectarian warfare. The longer our troops stay there, the worse it gets.

In the Middle East, the belief that the U.S. may be moving towards talks with Iran and Syria already seems to be having a good effect. This week Iraq and Syria restored diplomatic relations after 24 years, with Syria's foreign minister pledging cooperation in trying to stem sectarian violence in Iraq. Iraq's President plans to go to Iran for a summit with Iran and Syria on addressing the violence in Iraq. Press reports have suggested that these diplomatic moves have been influenced by the expectation of a possible shift by the U.S. towards diplomacy.

But the Bush Administration is still cool towards these commonsense moves towards dialogue. This is a critical time for Americans to speak up. The election of a new Congress provides an opportunity for a new approach. If members of Congress hear consistently from their constituents that it's time for serious talks with Iran and Syria -- on all issues in dispute and without preconditions -- it could help turn U.S. policy in the Middle East away from war and towards diplomacy.