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Middle East: Iran, Syria, U.S. Seek Common Ground On Iraq

Houchang Hassan Yari (Courtesy Photo) PRAGUE, November 24, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- On November 22, Radio Farda's Niusha Boghrati interviewed Houchang Hassan Yari, a professor of international relations (military and strategic issues) at Canada's Royal Military College, about the prospects for engaging Iran and Syria in the search for ways to stabilize Iraq.

RFE/RL: What is the role of Iran and Syria in Iraq and why has the U.S. government, despite its opposition to both governments, declared that a dialogue with these two countries might be considered?

Houchang Hassan Yari: There are two roles here. One is assigned by the Americans to the Iranians and Syrians and that role is very negative -- that Iran and Syria are interfering in the internal affairs of Iraq by helping different groups and helping the instability.

The other role is how the Iranians and Syrians see themselves. For the Iranians, for instance, the security of Iraq is extremely important. They don't want to see an insecure Iraq, and this is why they say, they put pressure on different groups to overcome their problems.

"The consequences of the meeting, if it happens, would be that at least those three countries can put their act together, have a common strategy in regard to how to tackle the violence in Iraq and, again, that would reinforce the position of Iran."

For the Syrians there is something more or less similar. The Syrians say they do whatever it takes to secure the border, to control the border between the two countries. And they also say they are in favor of Iraqi integrity and they are against any kind of insecurity in Iraq. So it depends really on who is talking.

RFE/RL: So why do you think that the U.S. government wants to talk to these two governments?

Hassan Yari: Obviously, when the Americans are talking about Iranian and Syrian interference in Iraq, it seems that they are very serious. But I think there are two reasons why the Americans want to engage with Iran and Syria regarding the Iraqi situation.

The first one is that there is a desire in Iran and in Syria -- and also in other countries in the region -- to see the devolution of these situations from the Americans and foreign forces to the Iraqis themselves. So this is why they send various signals to the Americans and to others that they are ready to help out in overcoming the problems.

The second point regarding why the Americans are interested in these two countries is that the situation in Iraq is extremely difficult, obviously. The number of Iraqis killed in daily violence is drastically raising, and there is obviously a very chaotic situation in Iraq. So this is why the Americans would like to get whatever help possible in order to reduce the violence and help bring some stability to this country.

Finally, we can talk about a third reason why the Americans are interested. That is connected to the U.S. internal political dynamics. Since the mid-term elections [on November 7] where the Democrats did very well and recaptured the Congress, they put a lot of pressure on the administration [of U.S. President George W. Bush] to bring back the American forces from Iraq. So, in other words, these elections show that the American public is not very happy with the conduct of the war in Iraq. The administration has to answer to the population and this is why I believe [former U.S. Secretary of State and head of a bipartisan commission examining Iraq policies] James Baker and others in their forthcoming report are in favor of engaging Iran and Syria. In that context, the Bush administration is showing some flexibility in its relation with Syria and Iran with regards to Iraq.

RFE/RL: How important in your view is Iraiq President Jalal Talabanis trip to Tehran? And also Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's possible trip there? What will be the consequences of it?

Hassan Yari: If those trips happen and if Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad becomes the host to this tripartite meeting that would be extremely important. Because it shows that Iran is important in the region. Despite what the Americans see as negative aspects of Iranian behavior in the region, Iran wants to show that they are pivotal for peace and security in the region.

This is why they would like to have this meeting to go ahead and also it reinforces simply the position of Iran in the region and in any Iranian-American negotiation. The consequences of the meeting, if it happens, would be that at least those three countries can put their act together, have a common strategy in regard to how to tackle the violence in Iraq and, again, that would reinforce the position of Iran.

It would give some guarantees to Iraq that Iran and Syria are serious about their help and also that would create some opportunities for Bashar al-Assad, who is under a lot of pressure by the Americans and the UN Security council since the [February 2005] assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister [Rafiq] al-Hariri and also the recent assassination of Pierre Gemayel, the Lebanese industry minister.

A meeting in Tehran would create for al-Assad a chance to show that they are in favor of peace and security in the region.

RFE/RL: In your opinion would U.S. negotiations with Iran and Syria be limited to Iraq or would they include broader issues?

Hassan Yari: Obviously Iraq would be the main point, the focus, because it is the most pressing issue this part of the Middle East. But it shouldn't be necessarily limited only to Iraq. It depends really how the dynamic of the negotiations is going to be, if they ever take place. If around the table the Americans and Iranians do not talk to each other, if they keep their traditional stand accusing each other, that wouldn't be helpful and constructive. So that cannot go to far. But if, on the contrary, they realize how important the security of Iraq is for both of them, then there is a chance that they could collaborate more closely. And such a development will obviously create an opportunity to gradually build on this goodwill, and ultimately [this process] could include other problems .

RFE/RL: What would be the effect of such negotiations on the nuclear issue?

Hassan Yari: I think the Iranian nuclear issue is technically political -- it's not technical, it's not legal. I believe it's political and this is why it should be resolved through negotiations. I can say that the Iranians are looking for basically for three things from the Americans. The expectations are that, first, the Americans forget the question of regime change in Tehran -- if the Americans remove that from the table, it would make the Iranians happy.

The second point is the nuclear issue, and the third would be security -- that Iran's security is going to be intact and the Americans will not attack Iran. If the Iranians get these three basic and very important guarantees from the Americans, I think there is really no more reason for the Iranians to continue their hostility [toward] the Americans or for the Americans to accuse the Iranians of all kind of difficulties in the region.

These three points are the most pressing issues for Iran and their difficult relations with the Americans.

Iraq And Iran

Iraq And Iran

Iranian Shi'a protesting the Golden Mosque Bombing in Iraq on February 24

WHAT IS GOING ON? On March 8, RFE/RL's Washington office hosted a roundtable discussion on relations between Iraq and Iran. Although most analysts agree that Iran has been actively involved in Iraq since the U.S.-led military operation to oust former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, they continue to debate the nature, extent, and intent of that involvement.
The RFE/RL briefing featured WAYNE WHITE, former deputy director of the U.S. State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research's Office of Analysis for the Near East and South Asia, and A. WILLIAM SAMII, RFE/RL's regional analyst for Iran and editor of the "RFE/RL Iran Report."


Listen to the complete RFE/RL briefing (about 75 minutes):
Real Audio Windows Media


Iran/Iraq: Bilateral Ties Improving Despite U.S. Worries

Renewed Speculation About Tehran And Instability In Iraq

Iran/Iraq: Neighbors Mending Ties, But Outstanding Issues Remain


RFE/RL's coverage of Iran. RFE/RL's coverage of Iraq.