An apparent deal between the United States and Iran that would have brought Tehran's influence to bear on Iraqi Shi'as to end their uprising against US occupation forces has fallen apart amid the assassination of a top Iranian diplomat in Baghdad. A leading American expert on Iran said the deal's collapse indicates that the Bush administration lacks a coherent Iran policy.
Khalil Naimi, who held the title of first secretary of the Iranian embassy, was shot and killed by gunmen on April 15 just after he drove out of the Iranian diplomatic mission. According to the official IRNA news agency, several assassins riddled Naimi's vehicle with bullets and then shot him twice in the head before fleeing the scene. The diplomat was, according to one Iranian report, a commander in Iran's Revolutionary Guards, which has maintained a significant presence in Iraq.
The circumstances surrounding the assassination prompted some political analysts to suggest that it was specifically designed to upend the tenuous US-Iranian rapprochement effort. Other experts maintained that the US-Iranian deal had fallen apart before the assassination occurred, adding that Iranian officials were using the killing as an after-the-fact pretext for abandoning the cooperation effort.
Following the assassination, Iran's political leadership lashed out at the United States, holding "the occupiers" of Iraq responsible for the Naimi's death, and for the chaos that has engulfed Iraq in recent weeks. Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi announced April 16 that Iran would not attempt to mediate an end of the Iraqi Sh'ia uprising, led by fighters loyal to firebrand cleric Moktada al-Sadr. In recent days, Sadr had sent signals that he might be open to a negotiated end to the uprising. However, Sadr, along with other influential Iraqi clerics, appeared on April 16 to harden their stance towards the US forces in Iraq.
"The current situation in Iraq is undoubtedly the result of US negligence towards the realities and the sentiments of people in the region," Iranian President Mohammad Khatami said in comments published by IRNA. "It is necessary that the United States change its behavior towards the Iraqi people."
On April 15, US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher indicated that it would be "inappropriate" for Iran to play an intermediary role concerning the Shi'a uprising. He added that "It is appropriate for them [Iranian officials] to try to work with [US-installed Iraqi] authorities in Baghdad ... to try to help stabilize this situation and bring whatever influence to bear that they can."
The day before Naimi's killing, it appeared that the United States and Iran were close to working out a deal to promote stability in Iraq. Iranian leaders in recent months had sent feelers to the US government about the possibility of engaging in a political dialogue, only to have Bush administration officials summarily reject the overtures. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The rapid expansion of violence in Iraq in recent weeks appeared to prompt a sudden about-face by Washington, however. According to Kharrazi, the United States, acting through Swiss intermediaries, initiated the effort to secure Iran's mediation help.
Iranian conservative leaders appeared willing to accept the US mediation appeal. Many conservatives, who won Iran's parliamentary elections in February under dubious circumstance, have expressed a clear desire to "normalize" relations with the United States. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Iranian sources say the first US message concerning potential Iranian mediation was sent in early April. There was reportedly a carrot attached to the US request: in return for Iranian assistance, the US government offered to soften its stance on Iran's nuclear program. The US request also was backed up with a stick: the failure of Iran to take action on the mediation request would cause the United States to intensify efforts to secure international sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program.
Iran maintains that its program is strictly for civilian purposes, specifically seeking to develop nuclear power generating capacity. At the same time, Iran has resisted outside efforts to monitor its nuclear research facilities.
While the United States and Iran were parlaying, there was a noticeable softening of US rhetoric concerning Iran's role in Iraq. On April 9, for instance, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli downplayed suggestions that Iran was assisting Iraqi Shi'as in mounting their resistance to US forces. "I think we've seen, generally speaking, reports of suggestions of Iranian involvement, collusion, provocation, coordination, et cetera, et cetera. But I think there's a dearth of hard facts to back these things up," Ereli said. On April 15, after it became apparent that Iranian mediation would not be forthcoming, US government rhetoric adopted a more negative tone. For example, Boucher in his April 15 briefing mentioned that US officials are "concerned about some negative [Iranian] influences" in Iraq.
Gary Sick, an Iran expert who served on the US National Security Council during the Ford, Carter and Reagan administrations, attributed the collapse of the cooperation effort in large measure to disunity within the Bush administration on how to deal with Iran. He added that Iranian leaders are likewise bitterly divided on the question of normalizing relations with the United States.
"It is fair to say that the United States has no policy vis-à-vis Iran," Sick said in an interview with EurasiaNet. "Both [the US and Iranian] governments have two, sometimes three distinct positions on how to deal with the other side."
"Although the United States has been consistent in attacking Iran's policies, what was very interesting earlier this week was the United States was not publicly rejecting Iran's mediation role. Some in this administration believe the United States must use all the help it can get to defuse the current situation in Iraq," Sick continued. "Others, chiefly the neo-conservatives in the administration, are dead-set against any sort of engagement with Iran, even if it benefits US interests initially." Sick added that neo-conservatives, in a steady stream of recent policy papers, memos and articles, have sought to portray any move to engage Iran as appeasement.
Sick mentioned that a similar policy debate is taking place within the Iranian political and religious hierarchy. "Many in Iran fear that continued instability in Iraq may harm Iran's long-term interests and that a smooth, peaceful transition to a Shi'a-majority serves [Tehran's] purposes, which would explain why they [Iranian leaders] are open to cooperation with the United States here," Sick said. "However, this [engagement with the United States] is opposed by a radical ideological group in Iran that believes that Iran could
Ardeshir Moaveni is a freelance journalist specializing in Iranian politics.