Analysis: US, Iran talks open door to 'grand bargain'

Even though expectations about what could be accomplished during a 4-hour meeting between US and Iranian ambassadors to Iraq should be limited, it is potentially crucial.

iran flag 88 (photo credit: )
iran flag 88
(photo credit: )
For the first time in over three decades, Iranian and American officials met face-to-face in bilateral talks on Monday. Even though expectations about what could be accomplished during a four-hour meeting between US and Iranian ambassadors to Iraq should be limited, it is potentially crucial. The meeting dealt with issues pertaining to Iraqi stability. But isolated from the larger US-Iranian conflict, there is little hope for progress. US and Iranian goals and interests in Iraq are diametrically opposed. America's goals are to defeat the insurgency, establish a stable democracy and be able to declare victory as its troops are withdrawn. Iran's goals are to maintain the status quo - keep the Americans tied down in Iraq, without making the pressure on US forces so great that it will force an early withdrawal. Keeping US forces bogged down in Iraq not only limits the US's ability to attack Iran's nuclear facilities, it also leaves 160,000 American targets nearby for easy Iranian retaliation should the US attack. From Iran's perspective, the more bitter the taste the Iraq war leaves in the US's mouth, the less appetite Americans will have for backing future foreign adventures. So if there is little hope for the US and Iran joining forces and creating a stable Iraq, why is this meeting so potentially important? Should the talks lead to a dialogue that would try to resolve all the outstanding issues between the two countries - what is often referred to as "the grand bargain"- there is some limited hope for creating a more stable Middle East. Such progress will not be easy. There are many bones of contention, such as Iran's support for terrorism and its sabotaging of the Arab-Israeli peace process. Most critically, such a dialogue would have to limit Iran's ability to produce a nuclear weapon. What price would Iran demand to reverse these policies? The suggested price has been, until now, a US guarantee not to destabilize the Iranian regime. While in the past the US has refused to give such a guarantee, there might not be a better policy alternative. The recent International Atomic Energy Agency report suggested that Iran had finally figured out how to enrich uranium, overcoming the most important obstacle to making a nuclear weapon. As Iran continues to manufacture centrifuges and master the enrichment process, an Iranian nuclear bomb is becoming increasingly inevitable. While economic sanctions or a military strike may set Iran's nuclear program back several years, the technological advancement is irreversible. The outside world may be unable to end the program permanently. If it is impossible to force Iran to end its drive for a nuclear weapon, the only way to prevent it is to persuade Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions. Since Iran's prime rationale for building a nuclear weapon is to deter the US from attacking it, a US guarantee not to attack is the best incentive the West could offer Iran to have it voluntarily end its program. Which brings us back to the talks in Baghdad. If such a grand bargain is ever to come about, it will require direct, bilateral talks between Iran and the US. Until yesterday, those talks did not exist. Though there is no guarantee such a grand bargain can be achieved, with Monday's meeting as a starting point, at least the door has been opened to find out. The writer is deputy director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.