This time the issue has been raised by the Americans. According to the much publicized report by former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and former Congressman Lee Hamilton, delivered to George W. Bush last Wednesday, the situation in Iraq may drift into chaos, which will not just result in the toppling of the government and a humanitarian catastrophe: there is a great danger that the bloodshed will spread to other Middle Eastern countries, spawning a regional conflict.
The Baker-Hamilton report's verdict is very pessimistic: the U.S.'s international image will be damaged for the foreseeable future, while domestic opinion will polarize even more.
What is to be done? The report proposes involving Iran in stopping the violence in Iraq. The advice makes sense, but given the mutual dislike of Tehran and Washington it is not likely to be followed.
American-Iranian cooperation in Iraq would require direct bilateral talks, which has so far been unthinkable for the Bush administration for several reasons. The first is the notorious Iranian nuclear dossier. A White House spokesman has already said that they have ruled out bilateral talks with Iran until it stops uranium enrichment and processing.
Another reason is even more sensitive for Washington: it is unclear how Iran, which has recently been positioning itself as a new Middle East superpower, will behave. There is no doubt that it will demand a lot, if, of course, it vouchsafes its participation in talks at all.
Besides, Iran is the last country to want the U.S. to leave Iraq now. Tehran is perfectly aware of the responsibility it would have to shoulder if it did. But does Iran have the strength, money and capability to prevent the situation in its neighbor from escalating into a war, given the developments in Lebanon and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict?
It does not, of course. Moreover, Iran's aspirations to develop its nuclear program and assume a leading position in the region have been met with hostility in the Persian Gulf states. Evidence of that is their rejection of Tehran's initiative on signing a non-aggression and non-interference pact that would remove tensions around the Iranian nuclear file.
So if the U.S. leaves, Iran may be left to face not only all potential problems in the region alone, but an anti-Iranian coalition as well. Nevertheless, Tehran will continue "boycotting" America's presence in the region, without crossing over the line it has drawn. This stance has obvious advantages in indirect bargaining with Washington, both on the nuclear program and on protection of regional priorities.
In addition, there is the current Iraqi government, which for obvious reasons does not want to speak too loudly in favor of a U.S. withdrawal, a fact which creates additional difficulties for Iran. This could be seen at the recent Iran-Iraq summit. Tehran positioned Iraqi President Jalal Talabani's visit to Iran as an emerging strategic alliance in the Middle East. The joint statement signed by Talabani and Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad touches upon many important issues, such as a bilateral agreement and relations between the two countries in general, but it does not say anything about the coalition forces deployed in Iraq.
The White House does not rule out that President Bush may announce changes in the strategy in Iraq before the year is out. This will be done after he compares the conclusions of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group with the recommendations of two other similar reports on Iraq. One of them is being drafted by the National Security Council, and the other by the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the U.S. Armed Forces.
Meanwhile, the Bush administration should probably acknowledge that the U.S. does not have a clear stand on any Middle East developments, whether it is the situation in Lebanon or Israeli-Palestinian relations. Its position on Iraq also needs a major adjustment. The key to many problems might be found in Iran, but this will not be an easy task.