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Like Nixon to China, Obama to Tehran?


Secretary of State John Kerry’s plane is touching down in a host of countries this week to talk about the new Iraq crisis and the continuing Syria catastrophe. His itinerary includes Cairo, Amman, Baghdad, Paris, and Brussels. But the capital Kerry – or even better, President Barack Obama – should visit isn’t anywhere on his itinerary yet – Tehran.

If ever there was a Nixon-goes-to-China moment, this is it. Preventing a full-scale outbreak of civil war in Iraq is not something the United States can do on its own. Neither is ending the war in Syria.

In both cases, Iran is a major player – perhaps the most influential outside actor. In fact, one of the reasons the international talks on Syria never got underway was Washington’s demand that Iran be excluded from participating. The United States and Iran share an interest in at least tamping down the war in Syria and in preventing full-scale war from breaking out in Iraq. Washington should make a dramatic, outside-the-box move to engage with Tehran in a whole new way to accomplish those goals.

Publicly, Iran’s leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, recently warned the United States not to interfere in Iraq. But there are reports that privately, Iran is interested in a possible new diplomatic bargain. That could link the replacement of the Shi’a prime minister in Iraq to the nuclear talks already underway between Iran and the U.S. with its allies.

Such a bargain would help meet key U.S. goals. The Obama administration all but officially recognizes the need for replacing Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, long supported by both the U.S. and Iran, if there is to be any hope of a political settlement to the sectarian crisis in Iraq. But so far Washington has balked at linking such a move with the nuclear talks.

That’s a mistake. The situation in the region is dangerous, and more Iraqis and Syrians face grim possibilities of more war, being forced from their homes, and worse. This urgency means this may in fact be the best moment to achieve some of the diplomatic goals that have eluded the Obama administration: finally resolving the Iran nuclear crisis, joining with Iran to press for a more inclusive government in Iraq, and real negotiations on ending the Syrian war.

Israel, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states will express outraged opposition – but they should not be allowed to scuttle a diplomatic opening.

What would Iran want from such a grand bargain? Tehran’s Shi’a leaders may want their allies in Iraq’s Shi’a-controlled, anti-Sunni government to remain in power, but they certainly don’t want a new war exploding and causing all kinds of instability just over their long border with Iraq. In Syria, Iran remains committed to Bashar al-Assad’s regime but it almost certainly does not want to continue having to bolster a weakened and isolated government forever.

And most urgently, in both Iraq and Syria, Iran is as eager as the United States to see the end of the extremist Sunni militia, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, now threatening the governments of both Iraq and Syria.

So there’s the basis for a bargain. The U.S. wants to see the end of ISIS too – but even though Obama insists that “there is no military solution,” he is sending almost 600 more U.S. troops and threatening missile strikes against ISIS in Iraq and maybe in Syria too. If the United States attacks ISIS in Iraq and Syria, it will be supporting the sectarian governments of both those countries – both close allies of Iran.

What’s needed is not more troops, weapons and threats of U.S. bombing, but diplomacy and an arms embargo. The United States has constantly demanded that Iran stop arming Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. That demand would have a lot more credibility if the U.S. took the first step of pressing its own allies, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to stop arming Syrian rebels.

The United States and its allies are already talking to Iran about that country’s nuclear program. Those talks seem to be going well, and will likely be extended in July. They should be expanded towards the kind of “grand bargain” with Iran that has so long eluded both sides. That would mean clear limits and inspection of Iran’s nuclear program, along with acknowledgement by the U.S. and its allies of the crucial regional role of Iran in the Middle East.

Nixon went to China. Why shouldn’t Obama go to Tehran?

Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. Her books include Ending the Iraq War: A Primer.

 

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