TOPICS: Time for Bush to talk to Iran and Syria

Whatever else James Baker may recommend in his much-anticipated report on future US strategy in Iraq, it seems certain he will urge George Bush to open direct, high-level talks with Iran and Syria.

Such a dramatic shift would have implications stretching far beyond Baghdad’s bloodied streets, affecting everything from the Israel-Palestine conflict to the fate of British forces in Afghanistan.

Mr Baker started this particular hare running in an interview on October 8. That contradicted Mr Bush’s instinctive view. But the president is short of political capital these days and fresh out of ideas on Iraq. Since the Baker intervention, the idea has been gaining traction.

Whether the White House will heed Mr Baker’s advice depends largely on the extent of Republican losses in next month’s congressional mid-term elections. Mr Bush has stubbornly resisted previous calls to change course, even when issued by political allies. But if Republicans do especially badly, losing control of both the House and Senate, big changes in Iraq policy are expected. They will most likely be heralded by the sacking of Donald Rumsfeld. These blatant political calculations have angered Bush opponents. The Democratic senator John Kerry said decisions about whether to adopt the Baker proposals should not be influenced by the poll outcome.

US-Iranian estrangement goes back 27 years and the idea of re-engagement is hardly new. Zalmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador to Baghdad, proposed limited talks on Iraqi security with Tehran last year. The idea went nowhere, killed by ingrained mutual distrust.

Although the US maintains diplomatic relations with Syria, the secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, has refused to visit Damascus. And since last year’s allegedly Syrian-backed assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister, the US has redoubled its efforts to punish Syria for its links to Palestinian militants, its supposed support for Sunni insurgents in Iraq and its alliance with Iran. This has had limited success. If anything, Syria has emerged more confident in the wake of the Lebanon war.

Amid such deathly deadlock and destruction, it is increasingly clear that something has to give. And according to Charles Kupchan and Ray Takeyh of the US Council on Foreign Relations, Iran holds the key in Iraq and beyond; and a genuine attempt at high-level engagement is overdue.

These new structures might include mutual security guarantees, enhanced regional cooperation and arms control pacts and could provide the impetus for a historic settlement of the Arab-Israel conflict. That in turn would help stabilise fragile regimes from Cairo to Riyadh to Kabul while assuaging the west’s terrorism and proliferation concerns. It looks like a long shot now. And much will depend on the willingness of Iran to play ball. Yet all but the most extreme hardliners in Tehran have long sought dialogue with the US. Like Syria’s leadership, what they really want from Washington is legitimacy and respect. —The Guardian