The US has decided to join in regional talks hosted by Iraq that include Iran and Syria. Is this a setback for US policy? What will come out of such a meeting? The recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton report notwithstanding, a regional meeting including Iran and Syria is a bit like the hens sitting down to discuss matters of mutual interest with a pack of foxes. Iran and Syria are doing their best to ensure the failure of the Iraqi experiment, attempting to engineer a Hizbullah takeover of Lebanon, and are actively instigating Palestinian terrorism against Israel. There is little point in asking them politely to stop.
Iran, US, UK to attend Iraq conference
Indeed, the US had until now implicitly contended that sitting down with the foxes risks signalling that the fox hunt has been called off, and that the hens have given up any hope of living in security and have decided to sue for peace.
This is certainly how Iran and Syria will interpret this US concession, and most likely the states of the region as well.
The question is whether what is, on its face, a damaging development is sufficiently mitigated by two factors. The first is that the Iraqi government, which has been largely shunned by its neighbors, is itself gaining legitimacy by hosting a regional meeting. This is a concession, of sorts, by Iraq's enemies in that they admit that the Iraqi government is not a foreign implant but an organic player in the region.
The second is the possibility that the US concession is a case of one step backward, two steps forward. US critics, both at home and abroad, contend that America needs to try to talk to Iran. Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, for example, said of the proposed talks, "It's so important that we understand the war will be won diplomatically, not militarily. They should have happened some time ago."
Once the one excuse for not fully supporting a campaign to isolate Iran has been eliminated, the upshot of the talks could be to increase the pressure on Teheran.
In this context, it is not yet clear what will ultimately result from Monday's six-nation talks in London to decide on a Western response to Iran's defiance of yet another UN deadline. An agreement evidentally was reached to marginally tighten existing UN sanctions. The most immediate battle, however, is to more fully implement the financial sanctions already imposed by the last UN Security Council resolution.
The US, for example, has been working hard to stop Iran's ability to engage in dollar-denominated transactions of any kind, whether they directly involve US banks or not. In parallel, the US is trying to convince Europe to do the same regarding Euro-based transactions.
The problem, of course, is that Europe is up to its eyeballs in trade with Iran, and is even heavily subsidizing such trade with government-backed export credits. Such subsides must be stopped immediately as a first step to clamping down on trade with Iran.
Though there is some support among European governments for turning the financial screws on Iran, there is also opposition. This is where those who have been pressing the US to talk to Iran, and who now seem to be getting their way, have a responsibility to step in.
Now there should be no obstacle to a fully bipartisan American policy toward Iran. Congressional leaders and the White House presumably agree: A diplomatic solution is preferable to a military one, but for diplomacy to have a chance, the campaign to sanction Iran must move into high gear.
In this context, a bipartisan leadership delegation from the US Congress, pressing European leaders to fully join the US-led sanctions campaign, could help convince reluctant allies to present a united front. Those who want to avoid the military option most should be the first to participate in such an effort, which is the last, best chance to stop the growing Iranian threat without firing a shot.