Meeting in Baghdad

In a few days, the administration will be attending a regional conference in Baghdad that Iran and Syria have also been invited to attend. But it is premature to herald a foreign-policy paradigm shift, says Geoffrey Kemp.

In a few days, the administration will be attending an ambassadorial-level, regional conference in Baghdad that Iran and Syria have also been invited to. But it is premature to herald a foreign-policy paradigm shift, says Geoffrey Kemp. And in an interview with National Interest online editor, Ximena Ortiz, Kemp predicted that Iran and the United States would not cross the brink of war.

Kemp is director of Regional Strategic Programs at The Nixon Center. He was Special Assistant to the President for the Middle East during the first Reagan Administration.

NIo: The announcement that the United States will be participating in the regional conference in a few days has generated a lot of discussion of a possible policy shift within the administration, somewhat reminiscent of the buzz surrounding Secretary Rice's European charm offensive shortly after Bush was re-elected. What, in your view, is afoot here? Is there an aesthetic change in which Washington perhaps wants to oblige Baghdad, or is there is a new willingness to engage Iran?

Geoffrey Kemp: Well, until we know where the initiative came from, i.e. Washington or Baghdad, it's difficult to answer that precisely. If this was an Iraqi initiative, then it suggests that the Bush Administration had little choice but to go along because, after all, we keep saying that Iraq now has sovereignty. If it was a Bush Administration initiative, it would suggest a significant change in course, but not perhaps as radical as you might think.

Ambassador Khalilzad had been given permission last year by the administration to engage in discussions with Iran specifically on Iraq. Presumably, these meetings would be specifically about the situation in Iraq and the neighborhood, and therefore would not stray over into other areas where we have great concerns, namely terrorism and the nuclear issue, and therefore technically this would not go against Secretary Rice's statement two weeks ago that she was more than willing to meet bilaterally with Iranian officials, but only after they had suspended their enrichment program.

So I think the administration can argue that it is being consistent with its past policies, but the reality is that of course this is a change in direction. Everyone knows it's a change in direction, and the good news is that out of multilateral meetings such as this, there could come more substantive bilateral discussions with Iran on all the issues that bedevil the relationship.

NIo: What is your view of the mood in Washington about some of the initiatives that have marginalized or not involved the United States? Is Washington at all concerned about getting sidelined, with Britain now saying that it will entertain the prospect of discussions with Hamas, and the Saudis brokering Palestinian unity talks? Could such a concern have been an impetus for the Baghdad talks? What is the general buzz in Washington about that?

GK: Well, I think on the issue of Hamas and whether or not the United States should recognize the new cabinet the Palestinians put together, I don't think this is likely to happen, particularly in an election period, unless the Israeli government itself decides that it's in its interests to deal in some way with the new Palestinian government, and the acid test is this: whether the Israelis are prepared to release more of the funds that they are holding in escrow for the Palestinians. If the Israelis decide that their strategic interests would be served by having a more accommodating position on Hamas, even if doesn't walk back its statements about Israel's right to exist, then it would be much easier for the Bush Administration to make adjustments too. But if that doesn't happen, I don't think they will budge.

NIo: Is there a concern in Washington that they're getting left out, do you think? That these things are occurring without them and they are perhaps…

GK: American power and influence in the Middle East is at an all-time low, in the sense that Iraq is now sovereign, Iran is calling the shots in lots of areas, the Europeans are beginning to show some independence, and they may even do so on this issue of Hamas. But all is not lost. The United States is still the dominant power in the region, it still has enormous assets it can play, and we don't what's going to happen with the surge. The surge might just be the breakthrough that the Bush Administration needs. If that happens, then I think that the power imbalance will be reversed.

NIo: Do you believe it is likely or unlikely that Iran and the United States will edge back from the brink of potential conflict on the nuclear issue?

GK: I think that the Iranians do not want a confrontation, particularly one that puts them in bad odor with the international community, and I think they're very troubled by the possibility that the Europeans, who feel very strongly about suspension of their enrichment program, might be prepared in the last resort to impose their own sanctions on Iran. This would be very troubling for the Iranians because they have a great deal at stake in their economic relations with Europe. It would add to the pressure the U.S. is already bringing to bear on them in denying them access to financial markets and tamping down on foreign investment in their energy sector. So I do think the Iranians will make gestures to try to first separate the United States from Europe, and if that doesn't succeed, might even be prepared for a limited suspension of their enrichment program. But they will never agree to a total abandonment of it, at least not at this stage.