For most Americans, who now wish we had never invaded Iraq, the notion of expanding that extraordinarily lethal mistake into neighboring Iran and Syria must seem insane. Yet those same brilliant neoconservative strategists who brought us the war in Iraq and constantly urge its escalation exist in their own special reality. They speak of military hostilities against Iran and Syria with anticipation rather than apprehension.
As we have learned over the past four years, their dreams often turn out to be our nightmares.
For four brief hours on Memorial Day, however, the neoconservative drive toward a wider conflagration in the Middle East stalled when ambassadors from the United States and Iran met in Baghdad.
The historic significance of that meeting should not be underestimated, even though U.S. officials emphasized that no further meetings would necessarily occur. Convened under the auspices of the Iraqi government, which maintains close relations with Tehran as well as Washington, last Monday’s event represented the first substantive bilateral discussion between American and Iranian officials in three decades.
Relations with Iran have been poor ever since the mullahs seized power from the U.S.-sponsored Shah in 1979, but in recent months the increasing strains between us and them, both in Iraq and internationally, have brought armed conflict closer. Longstanding grievances against Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism in the region have been exacerbated by the prospect of an Iranian nuclear arsenal and allegations about Iranian agents supplying weapons to the insurgents in Iraq.
As these problems worsened, American policy toward Iraq has vacillated between “containment” and “regime change,” applying economic sanctions and threatening rhetoric in varying degrees. That policy cannot be described as a great success. Iran has become more aggressive and more influential in the region as a direct consequence of the violent regime change that we inflicted on Iraq. Over the same period, Iran has elevated figures such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who are more religiously conservative and more hostile to the United States and its allies, especially Israel.
What we have not tried, until now, was talking to the Iranian leaders, except through intermediaries. By breaking the taboo against speaking directly with them, the Memorial Day meeting pointed the way toward a new and saner policy. It represents the same change that the Iraq Study Group urged six months ago as the most promising path toward disengagement from that bloody quagmire, when its report highlighted the need for regional talks including Iran and Syria.
Naturally, such signs of sanity were immediately met with furious denunciations from the far right, echoing the shrill attacks on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and several Congressional colleagues who dared to visit the Syrian leadership in Damascus. When the Pelosi trip was followed weeks later by overtures from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to both the Syrians and the Iranians, it became plain that U.S. policymakers were considering a sensible shift.
Those exploratory gestures provoked angry editorials in The Weekly Standard and The Wall Street Journal, which accused the State Department of undermining the White House “strategy for victory” in the Middle East.
The real danger is that whenever we start talking with our enemies, we may discover potential areas of compromise or even agreement. Progress would undermine the arguments of politicians and pundits who prefer a policy of permanent war.