On Memorial Day, the United States and Iran had a pleasant chat.
What they have been doing before and since then is talking, quite clearly, in language both sides understand.
The US-Iran chat was polite. Both sides expressed a common goal — “the security and stability of Iraq.” The United States rather sternly chided Iran over its sponsorship of the murder of American soldiers and innocent Iraqis as Iran seeks to compromise the United States and keep Iraq unstable. Iran, oddly, did not bring up the sore point that the United States is holding a number of its nationals, accused of fomenting violence in Iraq.
Iran intended to speak to that issue in another forum. And now it has.
Iran has charged three detained Iranian-Americans with espionage, and has since detained a fourth.
Meanwhile, a highly complex raid was executed through territory controlled by the Iranian-backed Mahdi Army to seize five Britons from Iraq’s Finance Ministry. Extremist elements in the Iranian government and military have, in general, found the seizure of Brits to be a useful way to humiliate the West and expose its vulnerabilities. However, the last time they did it, it resulted in an internal struggle that was counterproductive. Therefore, for both internal and external reasons, a “proxy hostage” crisis was considered to be the way to go. The U.S., theoretically, cannot attack Iran over the seizure of non-U.S. citizens by a third party.
But still the message is sent: “You have ours, we have yours. Let’s make a deal.”
What Iran wants sounds almost reasonable. A chance to play a helpful role in the training of Iraqi security forces. Not so much to ask, is it? No, until you reflect that it is the entire ball of wax. This little thing gives the ability to control the armed forces of a neighboring state that: 1) Iran wants to dominate, 2) that happens to be the keystone to the region Iran wants to dominate, and 3) Iran has made it clear an end to the U.S. presence in Iraq must be the end result of any talks.
An interesting notion. But talks work both ways.
The United States, aside from politely telling Iran in Monday’s chat to put a lid on its organized crime operations, has also been talking. The Mahdi Army was under attack both in Baghdad and Basra before the hostage-taking, which ramped up the pressure in Sadr City. There was also the high-profile show of force in the Persian Gulf.
Iran is also dealing with increasingly deadly ethnic, anti-regime insurgencies in its northwest and southeast regions, which it blames on us. But perhaps most frightening to the Islamic regime in its current precarious domestic situation, was the leak of a presidential authorization for the intelligence agencies of the United States to engage in covert activities to destabilize Iran politically and economically. Iran is now trying to forestall overt economic sanctions with a halfway offer to come clean on its nuclear program.
But Wednesday’s remarks in the White House press room, since repeated by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, were a major talking point aimed at Iran.
The United States does not intend to leave. Post-surge Plan B is being developed, and it will involve a long-term presence in Iraq. The United States sees South Korea as a model. Iraq and Korea are vastly different situations, but they share some critical factors in common. Both Iraq and South Korea abut enemies who want to dominate them, who seek nuclear weapons, and which are enemies of the United States. Unchecked, those enemies pose major threats to their entire, critical regions.
The Bush administration was talking to Congress and the American people with those remarks. But the United States government was also talking directly to Iran.
Talk is, theoretically, always good between adversaries.
In this ongoing dialogue with Iran, the United States needs to talk more. Exactly as the Bush administration has been doing. Only louder, more firmly, and with un-mistakeable language.
Jules Crittenden is an editor and columnist for the Boston Herald.
Crittenden’s web page is at Forward Movement.
“I have always said that a conference was held for one reason only, to give everybody a chance to get sore at everybody else. Sometimes it takes two or three conferences to scare up a war, but generally one will do it.” — Will Rogers