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Hardliners, hard options

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei sanctioned the meeting set for May 28 between Iran and the United States in Baghdad over the security of Iraq "to relieve the pain of the Iraqi people, to support the government and to reinforce security in Iraq".

The administration of US President George W Bush also cites the reason for the meeting as exclusively about security in Iraq. White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe told reporters, "The president authorized this channel because we must take every step possible to stabilize Iraq and reduce the risk to our troops even as our military continues to act against hostile Iranian-backed activity in Iraq."

The emphasis from both sides that Iraq and only Iraq will be discussed is evidence of their deep mutual mistrust and enmity. Keeping each other at arm’s length, each side is skirting carefully around the elephant in the room, that is, the deeply divisive issues that have poisoned Iran-US relations for nearly three decades. Clearly neither side would have agreed to meet unless forced by necessity. But has that necessity forced the beginning of a new phase in relations, or should we accept that the talks will start and end with Iraq?

So intractable are the divisions that many are already predicting devastating fallout just from the talks on Iraq. This is because President Mahmud Ahmadinejad flaunts Iran’s support for Hezbollah and Hamas in the face of US fury; the United States is accused by Iran of providing support for seedy terrorist groups – Jondolah in the south of Iran, Pejak in Kurdistan and the Mujahideen Khalq Organization (MKO), which the US protects in the unlikely circumstances of Iraq.

"The talks may backfire if Iraq’s Sunnis and the region’s Arab states perceive that the US is conceding Iraq to Iran’s sphere of influence," said Mustafa al-Ani of the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center. "It’s going to be civil war, and not just an Iraqi civil war – a regional civil war."

The show of teeth and claws just before the start of serious dialogue may seem surprising but it is arguable that this is what has made the meeting possible at all.

Democracy – especially in the Middle East – does not come about through democrats lecturing the antagonistic heads of state and other parties. The histories of such countries as Sudan, Algeria and Turkey show that while democrats are the ones who advocate "dialogue, negotiation and treaties", it is only when the most extremely opposed forces sit down to talk that true negotiations toward disengagement can be achieved. India and Pakistan and Northern Ireland are examples of such political disengagement through – albeit protracted – dialogue.

In these cases, democracy is born painfully from desperation in which every other alternative has been tried by both sides and has failed. Such failure inevitably wakes up the warring parties to the conclusion that the slogan "winner takes all" can also be interpreted as "all or nothing", and that if they are not the winner they will get nothing. Even worse, both sides – in this case the hardliners in Iran and the neo-conservatives in the US – may conclude that because of external factors – in this case Iraq – both sides will lose everything and there will be no winner.

To avoid losing everything, both sides have no alternative but to reach out to the other from the precipice of looming disaster in a bid to find a compromise solution: a summit, an agreement, a deal, or even a preliminary ceasefire – anything to stop the collapse of both sides.

Neither Iran nor the United States can be considered to have had a change of heart. But having tried and failed for 30 years, every other possible scenario and theory except to recognize each other and engage in dialogue, both sides have been forced to give negotiation and dialogue a limited chance. Both sides want this to be as limited as possible and finish as soon as possible. Both sides perhaps see in it a short-term opportunity to save their rapidly sinking ships and buy time to prepare for a new game of "winner takes all".

Curiously, so open is the antagonism on both sides that many question whether there is a deliberate effort to gift the other side with political ammunition.

In Iran, a recent crackdown on journalists, female activists and students as well as the imposition of political hardliners into society under the pretext of a "dress code for women" are being openly legitimized by the fact that the US Congress has approved a further US$75 million for America’s "democracy fund". This is to be spent on "supporting civil society, democracy and human rights in Iran" with new offices in London, Frankfurt and Dubai.

Emadaldin Baghi, human-rights activist and winner of the Civil Courage Prize in 2004, wrote last week to human-rights organizations from inside Iran complaining about the US budget. He pointed out, "The allocation of yearly funds has led to the Iranian government’s widespread concern and suspicion towards civil-society organizations and human-rights activists, clearly exacerbating in a significant way pressures on them and the number of arrests."

Similarly, US constraints imposed on Iranian financial institutions and trade recently could not have been possible if the Iranian regime had not openly threatened the West, at least verbally, at every opportunity possible.

But for Iranian opposition groups, particularly those inside Iran, history has arrived at a crossroads. For 30 years the platform for "peace and dialogue" has been in the hands of reformists – or moderates – inside Iran and exiled opposition groups. In this they have been supported by Western liberals, human-rights organizations and anti-war campaigners, who have in turn vigorously argued against the use of confrontation, sanctions and military solutions.

However, certainly as far as Iran is concerned, the reformists of the Mohammad Khatami era faced stiff resistance from hardliners and would no doubt have reached total deadlock had they chosen to push any harder to begin direct dialogue between Iran and the US. Instead, it has been necessary for the most ideologically antagonistic elements of both the Iranian regime and the US administration to sit down at the table and negotiate. In this way, perhaps it is only under the "fanatic" leadership of Ahmadinejad that such talks could have come about. After all, what is the point of negotiation if the parties who agree with each other are present without the presence of the hostile parties?

Whether next week’s meeting will lead to future rapprochement remains to be seen but the steps that are being taken both by Iran and the US are certainly irreversible, and the impact on the variety of opposition groups and factions inside and outside Iran will be as profound as it is inevitable.

At such turning points it is most likely to be the advocates of democracy themselves who are absent from the negotiating table. And in many examples once a thaw in relations begins, an ensuing crackdown on the democrats creates the focus for a joint initiative by both the parties now accepting to give and take.

A wave of political change can easily sweep aside the very same people who have been struggling for years for democracy, freedom and peace. They can find themselves in denial. The phrase "a snake will never give birth to a dove" is too comforting and familiar for them. Losing their slogans to the antagonistic heads meeting around the negotiation table can push them to staunchly resist the change that is now unfolding before their eyes but without their participation.

The liberal press and moderate voices in both countries that predict failure simply because of the internecine nature of the enmity also read as an expression of alarm. Iranian website Roozonline reported on May 17, "Some students demonstrated against the meeting in various cities claiming that while the US has ratified a budget for interference in Iran, the two sides should not have meetings."

As the gap between Iran and the US closes, Iranian opposition groups will feel the pinch more than anyone else. While opposition groups that have support from among the Iranian people have nothing to fear from this rapprochement, those that have lost their contact with the people and have relied totally on exploiting the West’s grievances with Iran are clearly going to face a seriously uphill battle.

The MKO, which lost popular support by working under the Saddam Hussein regime during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, has tried to tuck itself under the protective umbrella of US neo-conservatives since the fall of Saddam, but is already facing the possibility of being "spent" as a bargaining chip over Iraq.

In the latest review of the list of terrorist organizations, the US State Department upgraded the MKO to a "terrorist cult". The MKO’s representative in Iraq, Abbass Darvari, condemned the talks.

In contrast, Iranian lawyer and human-rights activist Shirin Ebadi – winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 – has maintained links with the Iranian people under extreme conditions inside Iran. She told the Washington Post that she "personally welcomes the talks".

"These negotiations must not be limited to foreign ministers of the two countries or even the presidents," she said. "The key point is the need for exchange between civil society in Iran and the United States."

Ebadi is capable of playing the regime on its own field.


Massoud Khodabandeh is a former member of the Mujahideen-e Khalq, and mainly served in the organization’s intelligence/security department. Khodabandeh left the Mujahideen in 1996 and currently lives in the north of England, where he works as a security consultant. He has been active in Iranian opposition politics for more than 25 years. He works closely with the Centre de Recherche sur la Terrorisme in Paris as an expert on Iran

By Massoud Khodabandeh, Asia Times, May 21, 2007


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