When Sen. Barack Obama questioned Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker on April 8, he expressed the conviction that the United States would find a solution for Iraq only when talking with that country's neighbors, including Iran. Mr. Obama may be right — but not for the reason he seems to think.
As Gen. Petraeus and Mr. Crocker underscored, Iran is a regime with the blood of hundreds of Americans and thousands of Iraqis on its hands. A sobering aspect of the recent battles in Basra and elsewhere, even for those hardened by years of close observation of Iran's behavior, is just how cynical it has been in arming all Iraqi groups, training hit squads to assassinate Iraqi politicians it does not like, providing rockets to "special groups" used to shell the Green Zone and other parts of Iraq — and then trying to appear the peacemaker at times to fool as many observers as possible about its true role in Iraq and keep the game going.
Elsewhere in the region, Iran foments anti-Israeli terrorism, talks of wiping the Jewish state off the map, pursues a nuclear capability, and plays a less constructive role in Afghanistan than it once did.
To suggest sitting down and talking with such a regime will itself be a major step toward solving our problems in Iraq risks sounding naive. To be sure, Mr. Obama has good company: The Iraq Study Group made a similar argument late in 2006. But at that point, at least, it was (slightly) easier to excuse Iran's behavior partly as the result of President Bush's pre-emption doctrine, earlier axis of evil speech, and unwillingness to deal directly with not only President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad but his somewhat more moderate predecessors.
Today, with President Bush nearly out the door, the recent National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's nuclear capabilities making it less likely we would soon contemplate a surgical strike on Iran's nuclear facilities, and America clearly worn down from nearly a decade of the war on terror, excusing Iran's behavior as that of a misunderstood or paranoid regime is increasingly hard to sustain.
More likely, Teheran is pursuing a much more ambitious, assertive and ruthless agenda now. It is seeking to establish itself as the region's hegemon, weaken the U.S. role throughout the broader Middle East and drive a stake through the heart of the Mideast peace process.
It also appears to be trying to keep Iraq in a semi-permanent state of turmoil, dependence and weakness to ensure Iran remains the center of Shi'ism and its Qods force and other extremist elements remain the silent, stealthy power brokers in Iraq, the Levant and beyond.
But even though his diagnosis of our problems with Iran seems badly off, Mr. Obama's prescription may be at least partially right. This is not to endorse his idea of negotiating with dictators at the presidential level: If elected, Mr. Obama should limit dealings with Mr. Ahmadinejad to a smileless hello at a U.N. meeting, and not dignify a mass murderer (and incorrigible liar) with the cordialities of Oval Office engagement.
However, U.S. diplomatic contact with Iran, the sooner the better, still makes sense — not because it will likely produce any breakthroughs, but because what Professor Victor Cha calls "hawkish engagement" can set the U.S. up more effectively to galvanize the kind of growing international pressure on Iran that is probably our only long-term hope of producing better behavior from Teheran. By trying to talk, we better position ourselves to get tough and have others join the effort.
Through negotiation, we can prove to the world that American recalcitrance, Texas cowboy foreign policymaking, and pre-emption doctrine are not the real problems here. Only by patiently trying to work with Iran, and consistently failing to make progress, will we gradually convince Bush-haters and U.S. doubters around the world that the real problem does not lie in Washington.
Only by diligently and deliberately accumulating proof of Iran's role in stoking violence in Iraq will we eventually win over more international observers who, after the Iraq invasion, tend to disbelieve anything they see out of U.S. intelligence in general and the Bush administration in particular.
Of course, this process has been started to an extent. Former Undersecretary of State Nick Burns worked hard with America's allies to turn up the heat on Iran over its nuclear program. The resulting sanctions, focused on top Iranian leaders' personal travels and assets as well as Iran's global banking liberties and its access to some high-technology goods, remain modest to date. But they are not trivial in nature.
Mr. Crocker and other Americans have met quietly with Iranians to discuss specific concerns about Iraq. On the intelligence side, figures like Gen. Petraeus — rather than the likes of Vice President Dick Cheney or other prominent Bush administration officials who do not have strong international credibility — have held press conferences and provided information on Iran's nefarious, deadly role in providing weaponry and training to virtually all Shia militias and even some Sunni extremists in Iraq.
In the aftermath of last month's Basra confrontation, by all accounts more Iraqi politicians are now willing to acknowledge that Iran's role in their country is not constructive.
But we are not where we need to be yet. Iran's nuclear ambitions continue unabated; on the same day Mr. Obama was questioning Gen. Petraeus and Mr. Crocker, the Iranians were announcing plans to triple their centrifuge capacities for enriching uranium. As American officials have increasingly made clear of late, virtually no one in the U.S. government now believes Iran has in fact been showing any deliberate restraint in its role in Iraq — a hypothesis some hoped to be able to believe last fall. The fact that no rockets fell in Baghdad when Mr. Ahmadinejad visited a few weeks ago was no accident. Nor was the subsequent intensification of fire after he left.
The only real solution to dealing with Iran, apart from an electoral miracle when Iranians go to the polls next year, is to increase the pressure on Iran from as many parties around the world as possible.
The United States, many Sunni countries, Israel, and a couple other American allies are already on board. But this coalition needs to grow to include, as full-fledged members, the likes of Russia and China and India — and most of all, major Iraqi politicians. We need to make Teheran fear that the sanctions will continue to tighten, someday perhaps even extending to its oil trade if its behavior fails to improve or in fact worsens. We also need to disabuse Iranians of their arrogant notion they can play all sides of the Iraq situation, seeking influence with every major group and most politicians through a combination of bribes, threats, weapons sales, and terrorist training.
In the end, this strategy's success will primarily depend not on American resolve or creativity but on the decisions of foreigners. To facilitate the process, all we can do is keep at it, while depriving those who wish to fool themselves of easy anti-American excuses about what drives Iranian extremism.
While George Bush has not handled Iran or Iraq well during most of his administration, to equate his mistakes with those of Mr. Ahmadinejad, or forgive what Iran has been trying to do in the region based on U.S. transgressions and mistakes, would be badly wrong. Yet many do just that. Until they change their minds, all we can do is be patient, keep fighting in Iraq, keep gathering intelligence throughout the region — and keep trying to prove we are the reasonable ones.
It would be nice to hear some tough talk from Mr. Obama and other proponents of engagement with Iran in order to know they understand the real nature of the situation we face. Innocent calls for negotiation are not particularly encouraging or reassuring. Presidential-level talks without a concrete agenda would be a waste of time at best. Actually believing Iran will respond dramatically to kinder treatment from the United States is wishful thinking.
That said, as part of a broader realpolitik strategy, talking with Iran — while preparing for the next steps after those talks fail — is still the right thing to do.