Will They Shake Hands?

Although the purpose of tomorrow's Baghdad summit is to deal with Iraq, the interesting and important part of it will be Iran-U.S. relations

James Baker and Lee Hamilton can finally permit themselves to enjoy a small smile of satisfaction. Three months after President George W. Bush sourly praised the report they wrote, but rejected their recommendation to have Iran and Syria participate in the diplomatic process in Iraq, he has been forced to swallow some of this bitter medicine. This is also a big day for Colin Powell, Bush's former secretary of state, who pushed for a direct dialogue with Iran, but was rejected by the White House conservatives. Today, when all the rivals meet in Baghdad, the cameras will probably not focus on Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki, but on U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Manouchehr Mottaki, the Iranian foreign minister.

Although the purpose of this conference is to deal with Iraq, the interesting and perhaps more important part will concern the relations between Iran and the United States. "Speaking with the enemy is part of world policy now, and I believe that normalization of relations with the U.S. can be useful," explained Ali Larijani, the chair of the Iranian Supreme National Security Council, in a recent speech.

Thus Larijani explained the viewpoint shared at least by the pragmatic faction of the Iranian administration, which also includes Foreign Minister Mottaki and several of the leaders of the defense establishment. Even if publicly they maintain a uniform stance, some of them are making an effort to leak information regarding serious debates that are taking place over Ahmadinejad's views.

"Iran has traditional ways of carrying out policy, and there is a reason why the word 'bazaar' is used to describe them. [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad is denying Iran the use of this type of negotiations," explained one Iranian commentator.

For example, when Ahmadinejad described the development of the Iranian nuclear program as "a train without brakes," the expression aroused so much criticism in Iran that, according to reports, even Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the spiritual leader of Iran, explained in talks with his associates that there is no need to use damaging rhetoric. Ahmadinejad is increasingly turning out to be the one making all the noise in Iran, whereas policy is being directed by Khamenei. Indeed he is the one who decided on Iran's participation in the Baghdad conference, and he is the one who laid down the rules: no direct negotiations with the U.S., just collective discussions about Iraq; no move toward concessions on the issue of the Iranian nuclear program, rather a show of doing a favor for the U.S. and Iraq.

Khamenei's thinking

The group of Khamenei's close advisers, pragmatic politicians with global connections, is likely to testify to the direction of his thinking. One of them, Ali Akbar Velayati, who was foreign minister for many years and is very familiar not only with the West, but with Russia as well, was sent to Moscow early this month in order to coordinate positions with Vladimir Putin on the nuclear question. Another close adviser, Kamal Kharazi - the chairman of the council on foreign relations, who was involved in the multilateral talks on the question of Afghanistan from 2001 to 2003 and formed ties with Colin Powell - supports direct dialogue with Washington.

Ali Larijani, the national security adviser and the person responsible mainly for the negotiations on the nuclear issue, is another interesting figure. He was appointed to his position in place of the pragmatic Hassan Rouhani, who wanted to reach an agreement on the nuclear question. The appointment of Larjani was supposed to indicate a change in the Iranian approach, to coordinate it more closely with the views of Ahmadinejad. However, Larijani is also busy mediating on the question of Lebanon, and of Iran's relations with Arab countries in general. Thus he has formed close ties with the Saudi Arabian leadership, and mainly with its national security adviser, Sultan bin Abdul Aziz.

Larijani, who studied the philosophy of Western culture and was the director of Iranian radio and television, is well aware of the importance of Saudi Arabia and its ability to promote relations between Tehran and Washington. Some see his absence from Ahmadinejad's visit to Saudi Arabia as a sign that he wants to distance himself from the extremist faction.

Larijani thus has something to use to back himself up if he intends to convince the Iranian government to promote dialogue with the U.S. In recent weeks the U.S. seems to be adopting a policy of "constructive vagueness." For example, Washington has for quite a while been refraining from publicly presenting evidence pointing to the advancement of the nuclear industry in Iran, and is making do with the statements made by the International Atomic Energy Agency or even with Ahmadinejad's admissions.

Even when it comes to Iranian involvement in Iraq, the U.S. is dancing a cautious minuet. On the one hand it is accusing Iran of involvement in terror in Iraq; on the other hand American spokespersons, including Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, are defining as "vague" or "doubtful" the information regarding sophisticated Iranian weapons that are serving the terrorists in Iraq.

Under ordinary circumstances, these American nuances would be insufficient, particularly when at the same time the administration continues, meanwhile without success, to push for the second resolution regarding sanctions against Iran. But the Baghdad conference is liable to offer the real prize to Iran: legitimate admission into the political space of Iraq.

Iran has a good relationship with the Kurdish president of Iraq, Jalal Talabani, and with the large political party called the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. In effect, Iran also has a strong relationship with the Al-Dawa party, the party of Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, although Al-Maliki recently accused Iran of encouraging and event participating in terror activities in Iraq. He warned that "Iraq will not allow the U.S. and Iran to conduct their wars on our land." This may be a statement that makes one snicker - since Al-Maliki is incapable even of ordering his government ministries to stop using their private militias - but it does testify to the relationship between him and Iran.

Unresolved debate

It is hard to understand what use this conference will be to Iraq, when the internal political debate there is far from resolution. This is not only a matter of the dispute between the Sunnis and Shi'ites - who apparently can be brought to an agreement - but rather of those same organizations and street gangs that are not entirely under the control of the political movements, and mainly, of the threat of Sunni Jihad organizations that are extending their control in Iraq and will do everything possible to prevent a Shi'ite government from running the country.

And thus, after elections were held in Iraq, a constitution was passed and the "democratic process" was completed, the country's democracy lacks the ability to impose its will. In this situation, even if Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria and the U.S. were to reach full agreement regarding Iraq, it is hard to see what political and military plan of action this agreement can produce.

Nor is there any convincing reason why this conference should be more successful, from Iraq's point of view, than the one that took place in Cairo in 2004. The hope is that even if Iraq does not find a cure for its ills at the conference, maybe at least something will be accomplished concerning the relations between Iran and Washington. In any case, it will be interesting to see whether Condoleezza Rice agrees to shake the hand of her Iranian colleague so that this handshake, too, will also enter the archive of relations between the two countries.