Dialog of the deaf

U.S.-Iranian talks to discuss Iraq could open a valuable channel of communication between the two foes, but analysts say a history of missed opportunities dampens hopes of any broader dialogue developing.

In a worst-case scenario, talks could descend into a “dialogue of the deaf,” offering hardliners on both sides the chance to declare contacts a failure and exacerbating an already tense standoff over Iran’s nuclear program, the analysts add.

Washington accuses Tehran of fomenting unrest in Iraq, which Iran blames on the U.S.-led forces that invaded. But despite the exchange of accusations, analysts say both are worried about worsening violence in Iraq, pushing them to agree to talks.

Iraqi political sources have said they expected the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, to meet with Iran’s representatives this week. Iran has not announced its team.

“There is a degree of urgency among both parties not to see Iraq slide into civil war,” said Anoush Ehteshami, a leading Iran scholar at Britain’s Durham University.

“They (Iranians) want a subdued and stable Iraq rather than a burning, anarchistic Iraq,” he said, adding: “Obviously they don’t want Iraq to be under American tutelage.”

While both sides say they will sit together, comments so far suggest they are keener to lecture than to listen.

U.S. President George W. Bush said this week the talks would give Washington the opportunity to tell Iran “what is right or wrong in their activities inside of Iraq.”

In a similar vein, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Tehran would not accept U.S. “bullying” and wanted to “make them (the United States) understand Iran’s views.”

Iran expert Baqer Moin said this was a battle of wills to see which adversary blinked first. “Whether both sides have genuinely reached a stage that they think they need to talk to each other, I don’t know,” he said.

But genuine dialogue, Moin said, would enable them to “send messages to each other directly rather than through third parties” and build confidence between the two countries at loggerheads since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Moin said that, by offering to talk about Iraq, the United States was effectively acknowledging Iran has legitimate regional interests, regardless of whether it liked those in power. Iran has long sought that recognition, he said.

One Iranian analyst said if talks broadened to the nuclear dispute — which both sides have said is not the plan — it would bring in a key player, Washington, which has so far been absent in direct negotiations with Iran over that issue.

Until now, Iran has talked with the Europeans and Russians to try to end the standoff, but without success yet.

The analyst, who asked not to be identified because his position does not allow him to speak publicly, said that without the United States “no substantial and concrete assurances or incentives or promises could be given to Iran.”


If the talks on Iraq break down with little or nothing to show, it could be worse than holding them in the first place.

“If that fails, the neo-cons in America and the conservatives in Iran will say, ‘We’ve done it, it hasn’t worked, let’s continue with the battle of wills,’ which can end disastrously for both sides,” Moin said.

Past experience cautions against much optimism. After the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States and during the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, both sides seemed to edge closer.

Iran condemned the September 11 attacks and made some contributions to the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan, where Tehran was as happy as Washington to see the Taleban ousted.

But shortly after that apparent detente, Bush’s “axis of evil” speech plunged relations to another low by putting Iran in the same category as its sworn enemy, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

“Iran and America sat together talking about Afghanistan and everyone’s hope and expectation was this was the beginning of a thawing that will be much more comprehensive. It didn’t lead to that, it led to the axis of evil speech,” said Ehteshami.

Tensions over nuclear and other issues, including Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s call for Israel to be “wiped off the map,” could also prevent any wider dialogue, he added.

“While one would hope that this would be broader and greater than just discussions about Iraq, I fear that ultimately everything is going to be overlooked because of this wider tension between the two sides,” he said.

© 2006 Reuters