One week ago today we were sitting in the lobby of our hotel in Amman,Jordan, talking with the very smart and well-informed Middle Eastanalyst Joost Hiltermann about the interactions that US power now hasin and over Iraq with Iraq’s much weightier eastern neighbor,Iran. (Hiltermann has worked onIraq-related issues for manyyears, including for several years now as the senior Iraq analyst forthe International Crisis Group.)

He said,

Well, the US and Iran agree on twothings inside today’s Iraq– but they disagree on one key thing.

What they agree on, at least until now, is the unity of Iraq, and needfor democracy or at least some form of majority rule there.

What they disagree on is the continued US troop presence there. Because the US basically now wantsto be able to withdraw those troops, and Iran wants them to stay!

He conjectured that the main reason Iran wants the US troops to stay inIraq is because they are deployed there, basically, as sitting duckswho would be extremely vulnerable to Iranian military retaliation inthe event of any US (or Israeli) military attack on Iran. Theyare, in effect, Iran’s best form of insurance against the launching ofany such attack.

I have entertained that conjecture myself, too, on numerous occasionsin the past. So I was interested that Hiltermann not only voicedit, but also framed it in such an elegant way. (For my part, I amslightly less convinced than he is that the decisionmakers in the Bushadministration at this pointare clear that they want the US troops out of Iraq… But I think theyare headed toward that conclusion, and that the developments in theregion will certainly continue to push them that way.)

From this point of view, we might conclude that the decisionmakers inTeheran– some of whom are strategic thinkers with much greaterexperience and even technical expertise than anyone in the current Bushadministration– would be seeing the possibility of “allowing” the USto withdraw its troops from Iraq only within the context of the kind of”grand bargain” that Teheran seeks. The first and overwhelminglymost important item in that “grand bargain” would be that Washingtoncredibly and irrevocably back off from any thought of pursuing astrategy of regime change inside Iran or from any threats of militaryforce against it.

Under this bargain, Washington would need to agree, fundamentally, thatdespite serious continuing disagreements in many areas of policy, itwould deal with the regime that exists in Teheran– as in earlierdecades it dealt with the regime that existed in the Soviet Union–rather than seeking to overthrow it. Teheran might well also askfor more than that– including some easing of the US campaign againstit over the nuclear issue, etc. But I believe there is no way themullahs in Teheran could settle for any less than a basic normalizationof working relations with Washington– such as would most likely beexemplified by the restoration of normal diplomatic relations betweenthe two governments– in return for “allowing” the US troops towithdraw from Iraq.

There are numerous paradoxes here. Not only has Washington’s widedistribution of its troops throughout the Iraq has become a strategicliability, rather than an asset, but now the heirs of the same Iranianregime that stormed the US Embassy in the 1970s and violated all thenorms of diplomatic protocol by holding scores of diplomats as hostagesthere are the ones who are, essentially, clamoring for the restorationof diplomatic relations with Washington.

… Meantime, a great part of the steely, pre-negotiationdance of these two wilful powers is being played out within the bordersof poor, long-suffering Iraq. For the sake of the Iraqis, I hopeWashington and Teheran resolve their issues and move to the normalworking relationship of two fully adult powers as soon as possible.

One last footnote here. I do see some intriguing possibilitieswithin the Bushites’ repeated use of the mantra that “All options arestill on the table” regarding Iran. Generally, that has beenunderstood by most listeners (and most likely intended by its utterers)to meanthat what is “on the table of possibilities” is all military options– up toand perhaps even including nuclear military options, which the Bushiteshave never explicitly taken off the table with regard to Iran.

But why should we not also interpret “all options” to include also all diplomatic options? Thatwould be an option worth pursuing!

(This post has been cross-posted tomy home blog, Just World News.)