Envisioning U.S. Talks With Iran and Syria
Shawn Baldwin for The New York Times

Published: November 19, 2006

IN Washington these days, an idea the White House once treated as anathema is suddenly gaining currency: to sit down and talk directly to Iran and Syria.
Tony Blair is recommending it. The Iraq Study Group headed by James Baker and Lee Hamilton may do so, too. With Iran intent on pursuing its nuclear program and with Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia unable to stabilize the region, there may be no other choice.

But if the White House chose to talk directly to Iran and Syria, what would those two want, and what possible areas of agreement could there be?

At the core of any negotiation would be a basic demand: Iran and Syria want some assurance that their regimes are going to survive. This may seem surprising, since both have been emboldened by American troubles in Iraq and by their ally Hezbollah’s success against Israel in Lebanon. And both have seemed to do everything they can to provoke the United States. But political analysts and diplomats say Iran’s and Syria’s leaders still share a paramount fear that their regimes are vulnerable to the unequaled economic and military might of the United States, strained as it is.

The fears have a basis in history. Iran could not defeat Saddam Hussein’s army in eight years of war, then watched twice as American tanks rolled up Iraq’s forces in short campaigns. The post-conquest American difficulties there may have emboldened Iran’s leaders, but the two invasions remain a lesson. Now Iran fears the prospect of painful economic sanctions, at American urging, because it will not halt its nuclear program.

Syria’s leaders are said to worry that an international investigation of the assassination of a top Lebanese politician will reach high into the Syrian government and shake the regime.

“The main concern for Iran is that it does not want to change the current power structure in the country,” said Ahmad Zeidabadi, a political analyst in Tehran. “It will resist any change.”

So far, the Bush administration has said that it wants to solve the Iranian nuclear confrontation “diplomatically” and that Syria chose the wrong protector when it threw itself in with Iran’s mullahs. But it has never offered up the security assurances it has periodically, if half-heartedly, given North Korea. And Iran and Syria have noticed.

Nevertheless, even if no grand bargain on Iran’s nuclear ambitions and role throughout the Middle East is in the making, could there be a moment when both Iran and Syria might talk seriously with the United States about a smaller range of issues?

While Iran’s leaders have shown no sign of dropping their antagonism toward the United States and Israel, they have hinted at willingness to help stabilize Iraq, and perhaps Afghanistan. After all, preventing a complete disintegration of Iraq would allay Iranian concern that anarchy could one day cross the border and, perhaps, incite Iran’s own ethnic minorities (Kurds, for example). Similarly, holding back Afghanistan’s Taliban would block the re-emergence of an old Sunni enemy that considers Shiites apostates.

In exchange for cooperation in Afghanistan, of course, the Iranians might expect the United States to abandon what they see as efforts to interfere in their domestic affairs. Those include American projects that aim to promote Iranian democracy (but that Iranian officials say foster instability), as well as the prospect of sanctions as punishment for Iran’s nuclear program.

Syria feels more vulnerable than Iran now, due to both domestic and international politics and the reality that its slim reserves of oil will soon run dry. President Bashar al-Assad has drawn closer to Iran since being isolated by Washington and its Arab allies. But Syria does not want its confrontation with the West to bring it more isolation and humiliation, or a loss of legitimacy at home.

This could happen as a result of a continuing investigation into the murder nearly two years ago of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri. A United Nations investigation has implicated Syrian officials, and the Security Council has moved to form a tribunal. That scares the Syrians, and they are eager to block its inception.

“Syrians think that the U.S. can just call up the U.N. and stop it,” said Andrew Tabler, a consulting editor for Syria Today magazine in Damascus. “That’s not going to happen. However, where some room to maneuver does exist is over how high up the food chain the investigation will go. This is what worries Syria because this is the primary place it is vulnerable.”

Recently, political analysts say, Syria has shown a degree of willingness to help stabilize the conflict in Gaza — something the United States wants — and its officials have repeatedly said the government is willing to hold peace talks with Israel.

“Syria is quite realistic, if proud and stubborn,” said Joshua Landis, an assistant professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma. “It will accept serious American offers and insist that the problems be dealt with comprehensively.”

Focusing on Iraq, Afghanistan and the Israel-Palestinian conflict might be a realistic way for the United States to navigate with Iran and Syria. That is true partly because the Iranians and Syrians both understand, no matter how reluctant they are to express it publicly, that the United States can help them stabilize their regimes and help settle regional problems. “You can’t have a deal in the Middle East without the Americans, regardless of the judgment we carry,” said an Arab diplomat who spoke on the condition his name and nationality not be identified because of the sensitive nature of the topic.

But bolstering those regimes is a lot to ask of the United States.
Why, in fact, do anything to boost the prestige of the Iranian mullahs or the Assad regime, when that would also risk colliding with the aims of America’s Mideast allies? When Americans agreed to hold talks with Iran about Iraq — talks that never went forward — officials in Egypt were furious because it confirmed their own fears that Iraq was now in Iran’s orbit, and not their own.

The administration’s stated position has been that it will join negotiations with Iran if Iran first suspends the enrichment of uranium. But the Iranians have rejected any conditions on the talks. There are also few contacts with the Syrians, with whom the United States still has diplomatic relations.

The president’s national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, says that talking alone “is not a strategy,” and that when it comes to talking about stabilizing Iraq, the administration must be sure the Iranians and Syrians really feel it is necessary to do so. But that may not happen soon: As long as the violence stays inside Iraq, it mainly keeps the Americans pinned down and off balance.

In any event, Mr. Hadley said last week, America would never trade away its determination to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon in return for help in Iraq.

Nevertheless, diplomatic analysts in Lebanon suggest that this is a good time to recognize that differences between Iran’s and Syria’s positions that could, perhaps, be played off against each other.

Take the case of Hezbollah.

While Iran feels that the perceived victory of Hezbollah over Israel in the summer war boosted its own prestige, it does not want Hezbollah’s rise to plunge Lebanon into chaos; instead, it wants Hezbollah to consolidate power and help spread Shiite influence and Iranian ideology. Syria, on the other hand, appears to want chaos in Lebanon, an environment that could stymie the Hariri murder investigation.

In the end, though, such differences could count for little in the face of the far larger antagonisms that have so far kept any talks, even over small issues, from starting.

One factor is Iran’s reluctance to compromise on ideological issues. Its leaders define Iran’s revolutionary character largely as anti-American and anti-Israeli, while the United States is seeking to slow the spread of revolutionary Islam.

“The U.S. and Iran are pursuing different policies in the region,” Mr. Zeidabadi said. “They might have some common interests. But what is obvious is that Iran considers its survival in spreading a kind of radical ideological Islam in the region which the U.S. says is its enemy.”

And whatever their differences with each other, both Syria and Iran distrust the United States far more.

“A lot has to happen first before we see a grand bargain,” Mr. Tabler said.