ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, March 11 , 2007
Vol. 41 - No 41
Columns - Issue of the week

Iran’s diplomatic victory at Baghdad meeting

By Ameen Izzadeen

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki announcing at a news conference that Iran would attend the Baghdad meeting. AP

The meeting yesterday in Baghdad saw officials from Washington and Tehran, which have not had diplomatic ties for more than a quarter of a century, sitting down at the same table. The way events are unfolding in West Asia makes one wonder whether the United States was working for Iran. Prior to 9/11, Iran was surrounded by enemies. In the east, the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan were posing a major ideological and security threat to Iran's interest. In fact, Iran almost invaded Afghanistan when the Taliban killed some of its diplomats.

In the west, Iran’s enemy was Iraq, with which it fought a decade-old war. Although the two countries were mending fences by 2000, there was no love lost between Saddam Hussein and the Iranians. With 9/11, everything changed — in Iran's favour. If Iran had invaded Afghanistan, it would have been a major drain on its economy. Besides, the fortifications on the western borders would have slackened and Saddam might have been tempted to launch a second invasion. The US invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 on the pretext that the Taliban failed to hand over Osama bin Laden, America's most wanted man. Without firing a bullet or losing a soldier, Iran achieved what it wanted — the ouster of the Taliban regime.

Two years later, the Americans were doing exactly what the Iranians would themselves love to do — removing Saddam. Not only that, the US-guided democratic process in Iraq saw pro-Iranian Shiite Islamic parties taking control of the government, for the first time in centuries. It wouldn't be a bad idea if Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei decides to send US president George W. Bush a 'Thank You' card.

The sharp and sudden rise in world oil prices — a byproduct of Bush's Iraq war — saw Iran, which has the world's second biggest proven oil reserves after Saudi Arabia and the second biggest gas reserves after Russia, becoming rich enough to spend a few billions of dollars in pushing its global agendas.

With the Bush administration pre-occupied with the Iraq war, Iran's global manoeuvres escaped Washington's radar. Last year, when Israel invaded Lebanon unleashing its superior fire power and executing a plan Tel Aviv had conceived four months prior to the offensive, Iranian-backed Hezbollah guerrillas put up a brave fight. Although the 34-day war caused immense damage to Lebanon and killed hundreds of civilians, Hezbollah scored a big moral and military victory against a mighty enemy which was supported by the United States and Britain. The Iranians were in Lebanon with billions of dollars to reconstruct the houses and roads destroyed by Israel.

In Palestine, Iran is a friend of Hamas, the popular resistance group. In Bahrain where a Shiite majority is ruled by a Sunni Emir, parliamentary elections produced a Shiite-dominant assembly. In Saudi Arabia, Shiite Muslims who constitute about ten percent of the population, have begun to openly voice their grievances and assert their position.

Western analysts termed the political phenomenon taking shape throughout West Asia as the rise of the Shiite crescent. And what else? The US occupation of Iraq helped Iranians find more political space to put its nuclear programme on a fast track. The United States and the international community could only impose ineffective sanctions on Iran, which however claims that its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes. If Iran can produce energy through nuclear power, it will allow the country to export more oil and bring oil prices down. But the United States says that Iran's nuclear programme is weapons-oriented.

Can the United States undertake a military operation even of limited nature against Iran? Such an action will sound the death knell for President Bush's Republican Party at next year's presidential election. Iran has warned that if the United States or Israel attacks its nuclear facilities, it will hit American targets anywhere in the world. Iran does not have to scan the world looking for US targets. They are just across the border in Iraq and Afghanistan. Of the two, Iraq will be the better bet.

It is against this backdrop that the United States and Iran agreed to join yesterday's international meeting on the future of Iraq — a forum convened by the Iraqi government. Definitely, Iran's nuclear programme was not on the agenda, but Iran's alleged role in assisting the Shiite insurgents was.

Of late, the United States is building up a case against Iran, accusing Tehran of helping the insurgents make the deadly EFPs - Explosively formed penetrators. But the Bush administration has so far failed to provide evidence that Iran was supplying arms to the insurgents. Last week, US soldiers in Iraq displayed weapons seized from Shiite insurgents and showed made-in-Iran parts used in roadside bombs. But a New York Times report noted that the bombs also contained parts manufactured in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates and elsewhere in West Asia.

The meeting attended by middle level US and Iranian officials took place against the backdrop of US saber rattling. The Bush administration has sent two aircraft carriers to the Persian Gulf and Bush had ordered US troops to crack down on Iranian networks operating alongside insurgents in Iraq. Several Iranians, including diplomats, are being detained by US forces in Iraq in spite of requests from the Iraqi government that they be released.

The meeting which was also attended by Syria, several Arab League members and representatives from regional and international organizations was not the first such regional meeting where friends and foes came together to discuss a regional issue.

At the Iraq development forum meeting held in the Egyptian resort town of Sham al-Sheikh, the then US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, met his Iranian counterpart Kamal Kharrazi and exchanged a few words. Yesterday's meeting was also a major diplomatic victory for Iran, because it was Tehran which first suggested that Iran and the United States should sit together and discuss Iraq's security. The victory became accentuated by the softening of the United States' stance that it would not talk directly with Iran until that country dropped its nuclear programme.

From the perspective of global peace, the meeting offered a glimmer of hope in a desperate situation. World peace is not a mirage. It is achievable. For that to happen, justice should prevail. But it is often powerful countries that stand more in the way of justice.

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