WASHINGTON, (IPS) - As Iranian and Amercian ambassadors in Iraq met in Baghdad over reaching an way to cooperate ending violences in this war thorn nation, a veteran analysis on the situation nin the Middle East warned about a renewed tension fulled by radicals on the both sides.
With only a few days left until the United States and Iran are expected to hold much anticipated talks, several factors point to the potential for a real diplomatic breakthrough. But the strongest indicators that the May 28 discussions between the U.S. and Iran carry great significance are not the positive signals emanating from Washington and Tehran, but rather the desperate efforts of the supporters of the status quo.
The State Department's genuine interest in a dialogue with Tehran was reflected by Secretary Rice's attempts to talk directly with Iran's Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki.
These include the Iranian intelligence service's shameless targeting of Iranian-American scholars and journalists as well as unconfirmed reports -- revealed on the eve of the U.S.-Iran talks -- that President George W. Bush has approved covert operations against Iran in order to destabilise that country.
Though Washington and Tehran's hostile rhetoric continues to be relentless, the mere fact that the Bush administration has agreed to meet with the Iranians in Baghdad to discuss the situation in Iraq is a major break with its earlier policies. Believed to be driven by top officials at the State Department, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Undersecretary Nick Burns, and supported by the new leadership at the Central Command, the willingness for diplomacy has created a glimmer of hope for the security situation in Iraq.
The State Department's genuine interest in a dialogue with Tehran was reflected by Secretary Rice's attempts to talk directly with Iran's Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki at the Sharm el-Sheikh summit earlier this month. At that conference, however, Mottaki did not reciprocate Washington's outreach.
Yet, the Iranians have taken other steps that reflect the seriousness with which they view the opportunity to talk directly with Washington. Recognising the anxiety a potential U.S.-Iranian diplomatic breakthrough would cause among some of Iran's Arab neighbours -- and the potential for these Arab states to undermine the talks -- Tehran has recently embarked on a campaign reaching out to its Arab neighbours. The aim is partly to alleviate Arab fears of a U.S.-Iran rapprochement, and to counter the impetus for these countries to complicate the upcoming talks.
For instance, Iran sent a relatively high-level delegation to the recent World Economic Forum summit in Amman, Jordan. Both Foreign Minister Mottaki and Javad Larijani, the brother of Iran's National Security Advisor, attended the meeting. The Iranians made several last minute requests to the organisers of the forum to place them on important panels.
Seeking maximum exposure to the Arab elites only days before U.S.-Iran talks were to begin, the Iranian officials defended their country's policies primarily by playing an old trick -- drawing the Arabs' attention away from Iran and towards the failed policies of the U.S. and the expansionist posture of Israel.
The forum participants -- primarily business elites from the regions Sunni and pro-U.S. countries -- were not receptive to the Iranian arguments, however. At some points, there appeared to have been a concerted effort by some states to push Iran back. For many of these Sunni dictatorships, the status quo -- i.e. neither a U.S.-Iran war nor diplomacy between the two -- seems to be the preferred option. As one Arab official put it: "Iran and the U.S. are two giant elephants in the region, and the Arabs are the grass they stand on. Whether the elephants fight or make love, the grass will get crushed."
Still, the most potent challenges to the upcoming talks are not emanating from the Arab states, but from Iran and the U.S. itself. The recent arrests of Iranian-American scholars and journalists increasingly seems to be related to efforts by status quo forces in Iran to undercut the fragile diplomatic process rather than using them as chips in the talks to win the release of five Iranians held by U.S. forces in Iraq.
In recent weeks, the Iranian intelligence services have imprisoned Dr. Haleh Esfandiari, a 67-year-old grandmother visiting her ailing 93-year-old mother in Iran. Denying her access to her lawyer -- Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi -- or visits by her family, these forces seems to calculate that the inhumane treatment of Esfandiari will cause a backlash in the U.S. against Iran and derail any diplomatic opening. As the head of the Middle East Programme at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars in Washington, her arrest was poised to receive significant media attention.
As Washington and Tehran near a potential diplomatic opening, desperate and potentially violent actions of status-quo forces on both sides are likely to increase and intensify.
These elements in Iran have also arrested Dr. Kian Tajbakhsh, a consultant for the Open Society Institute's programmes in Iran. A prominent social scientist, Tajbakhsh and the Open Society Institute's work in Iran was fully transparent and approved by the Iranian authorities.
His subsequent arrest -- only three days after Dr. Esfandiari was sent to the notorious Evin prison -- under the pretext of having worked to foment a "velvet revolution" in Iran carries no credibility. Tajbakhsh's activities centred around health and urban policy issues, most recently on AIDS prevention and drug addiction in Iran. Much like Esfandiari, his work helped open up Iran to the outside world -- an activity that clearly threatens the Iranian status quo forces.
Furthermore, in another effort apparently aimed at poisoning the political atmosphere right before historic talks take place between the U.S. and Iran, hardliners in Iran have cracked down on "inappropriately dressed" women and men breaching the country's strict Islamic dress code, arresting hundreds and warning thousands more. Some youth have reportedly been beaten up on the streets, in what has been described as a flashback to the early days of the revolution when religious zeal was at its height.
Tehran has also at the last minute refused visas to several U.S. citizens invited to two conferences in the Iranian capital next week. Others had their visas revoked.
Sitting idly by has not been the preferred course of action for opponents to U.S.-Iran talks in Washington, either. While some lawmakers are pushing for new draconian sanctions on Iran -- a measure that in the past has proved an effective impediment to diplomacy -- elements in the White House have leaked that the CIA last year received secret presidential approval to mount a covert "black" operation to destabilise the Iranian government. This entails a coordinated campaign of propaganda, disinformation and manipulation of Iran's currency and international financial transactions.
As Washington and Tehran near a potential diplomatic opening, desperate and potentially violent actions of status-quo forces on both sides are likely to increase and intensify. Iranian-American academics and scholars, who otherwise play no real role in these developments, will likely continue to bear the heaviest brunt of this backlash. ENDS PARSI 27507
Editor’s note: Dr. Trita Parsi is the author of "Treacherous Alliance -- The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the United States" (Yale University Press, 2007). He is also president of the National Iranian American Council (http://www.niacouncil.org/).
This analysis was posted by Inter Press Service on 23 May 207
Highlights are by Iran Press Service