Two political earthquakes hit the US of late. Last Tuesday, the Democrats took control of Congress, and the following day, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was replaced by Robert Gates, a member of the senior Bush’s foreign policy team.

Both events open up opportunities for Washington to find new avenues to resolve its many problems with Iran. The key to the elections and to Iran is Iraq. In light of the soon-to-be published Iraq Study Group report, it is increasingly clear that headway can neither be made on Iraq nor the nuclear stand-off with Iran unless the two are linked. The victory of the Democrats and the firing of Rumsfeld have shifted the balance between the pragmatists and the neoconservatives in the administration. As secretary of defence, Rumsfeld was closely allied with Vice President Dick Cheney in opposing every effort to open up diplomatic channels to Tehran.

According to Lawrence Wilkerson, former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s chief of staff, it was Cheney and Rumsfeld who made sure that Washington dismissed Iran’s May 2003 offer to open up its nuclear programme, rein in Hezbollah, recognise a two-state solution and cooperate against Al Qaeda. Rumsfeld was also a driving force behind using the Mujahedin-e Khalq, an Iranian terrorist organisation opposed to the ruling clerics, to weaken Tehran. Robert Gates, however, belongs to a different school of Republican foreign policy thinking. Gates’ entrance and the Republican leadership’s exit have created a precious opportunity to change the course on Iraq - and on Iran. For years, the Bush administration has pursued a maximalist policy based on rejecting any links between the Iranian nuclear programme and the many other areas where the US and Iran clash. By refusing any linkages, the White House has aimed to gain maximum concessions from Iran in all areas without having to reciprocate or offer any concessions in return.

This was clearly seen in Afghanistan, where President Bush’s envoy opened up talks with Iran to coordinate efforts to dispose the Taliban regime. Bush’s intentions were purely tactical - accept Iranian help in Afghanistan without permitting the cooperation to lead to a shift in attitude towards Iran.

The Iranians, on the other hand, were hoping that their assistance in Afghanistan would have strategic implications with an entire new relationship between Tehran and Washington as the ultimate outcome. Once Iran’s help in Afghanistan was no longer deemed necessary, Washington’s approach to Tehran cooled significantly, much thanks to the influence of Rumsfeld. Only weeks after the Bonn Conference in December 2001 where Tehran’s assistance was crucial in finding a compromise between Afghanistan’s many warlords, Bush put Iran into the “Axis of Evil”.

While the recent political earthquakes in Washington have raised hope that a shift in both Iraq and Iran may be forthcoming, President Bush is still the final decision maker.

Neither a Democratic Congress nor a pragmatist in charge of the Pentagon is likely to change the course on Iraq and Iran unless the president recognises the reality on the ground - without Iran, the US cannot win in Iraq, and without linking Iraq to the nuclear issue, Tehran’s services are not available. — IPS