For the U.S. representative, during the regional conference held in Bagdad on March 10, to actually sit at the same table with the Iranian and Syrian delegates represents, in itself, an important development. The next such meeting, scheduled for early April, and at the foreign minister level, offers the Bush administration a tremendous opportunity to go beyond Iraq’s internal strife. With vision, boldness, and careful planning, Washington can open the door to bilateral talks on larger regional security issues. This, along with intensifying reconstruction efforts in Iraq and the passage of the oil law, may give the administration a real opportunity to turn the corner in Iraq.
Direct contact between the United States, Syria, and Iran, however soon it takes place, would not be happening a minute too soon. Although Damascus and Iran may have some interest in a stable Iraq, their concern over the administration’s policies in the region and the American presence in Iraq trump their anxiety about Iraq’s stability. Neither country would have a vested interest in contributing to Iraq’s stability as long as it fears the administration intends to destabilize or topple it. Between now and the next regional conference, the administration can therefore send signals to Damascus and Teheran that it is ready to abandon its intention of regime change if they demonstrate in words and deeds their willingness to become constructive partners. No other incentive would work with either government, and so nothing meaningful will come out of the next conference without a fundamental change of strategy by the United States.
Try as he may, Mr. Bush cannot isolate Iraq from the other problems that trouble the Middle East. Among them are the looming danger of escalating regional conflict between Sunnis and Shiites, the ever-deteriorating violent conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, the continued fragility of the political situation in Lebanon, not to speak of the swelling ranks of the Jihad movement and the growth in numbers and scope of the terrorist groups bent on undermining moderate Arab regimes and the West, especially the United States. Whether the administration likes it or not, Syria and Iran can play a significant role in helping to stem these raging fires. Although the two countries have different strategic agendas, their bilateral relations with the United States would serve their divergent national interests, even though this may result in distancing Damascus from Iran, which in any case is a more desirable outcome for Washington.
I am not suggesting here that the administration can change the political dynamic in the region with a single stroke. Even with the best of intentions on both sides, mending the relations between Washington and Tehran would be extremely difficult. Too much bad blood and acrimony over the past 28 years have deeply wounded their relations. But if the administration wants to attain even a modest success in Iraq, it cannot and will not achieve this goal by simply sending in more troops and adopting a new strategy that is confined to Iraq. Rather, the administration must begin to settle its differences with Iran, including resolving the issue of Iran’s nuclear program, which Teheran will never give up before the hostility between itself and the United States is ended. The administration must also begin to mend its relations with Damascus, which is even more eager than before to normalize relations with the United States and ready to cooperate without preconditions, as I was told repeatedly by Syria’s ambassador to Washington, Imad Moustapha.
The third component to ending the violence in Iraq should come from the recent agreement, in principle, by the Iraqi government to pass a national law governing the distribution of oil revenue so it is equitably distributed among Iraq’s provinces based on the demographics in each region. More than any other effort to quell the insurgency, the passage of such a law would go a long way toward ending the Sunni strife. The administration must spare no effort to ensure that the Iraqi Parliament passes the measure as a basic law of the land; as such it would guarantee the economic livelihood of the three Sunni provinces. In addition, without massive reconstruction and the search for a political solution, no amount of military muscle can bring an end to the violence and rein in the insurgency. After four years of incredible hardship, the Iraqis still suffer from a lack of basic services and above all, continue to have overwhelming concern regarding personal security.
In an extended conversation I recently had with Iraq’s ambassador to the United Nations, Hamid al Bayati, he emphasized that the Sunni-Shiite conflict is not endemic but circumstantial, precipitated by many mistakes made immediately after the occupation of Iraq. He agreed that talking to Iraq’s neighbors, finding an equitable formula for the distribution of oil, accelerating the pace of reconstruction, and searching for a political solution would be the ways to end the violence and leave Iraq at peace with itself.
It appears that the various elements that can potentially produce calm in Iraq may now fall into place. The question is whether the administration will seize the opportunity and flex not only military but its diplomatic muscles to achieve optimal results for Iraq and the entire region.