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Baker Ex Machina

By David Ignatius

WASHINGTON -- In ancient Roman drama, when the plot got too convoluted to be resolved by mere humans, one of the gods would be hoisted over the stage to dispense wisdom and avert tragedy. The practice was known by a Latin term, deus ex machina, or "god from a machine.'' In our times, it is called the "Baker-Hamilton commission.''

I am all for smoke and mirrors, and gods descending from cranes, if that will help the United States regain some strategic initiative in the Middle East. And already, the Iraq Study Group seems to be having that effect. Before it has said a word, the group is generating a sense of possibility. Politicians across the Middle East are wondering how to game the new American initiative. That is what diplomacy does -- it creates space for maneuver. It also, almost by definition, creates expectations that cannot be realized.

The first step President Bush should take is to institutionalize the momentum created by the Iraq Study Group process by naming its co-chairman, James A. Baker III, as a special Middle East emissary. The former secretary of state has given the term "wheeler-dealer'' a good name. He's the only American diplomat I can think of who might cause Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to check for his wallet.

But within the next few weeks, Baker and the other gods must come down from the rafters and confront the all-too-human players on the stage. If the tipsters are right, the commission will recommend a regional dialogue that involves Iraq's neighbors -- including Iran and Syria -- along with a new effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Let's focus on Iran. Baker met in September with Iran's ambassador to the United Nations, Javad Zarif, and heard a detailed explanation of why Iran is wary about such talks. The Iranian envoy is said to have explained that Tehran shares America's interest in calming the situation in Iraq, and that contrary to U.S. fears, it doesn't seek a Shiite victory in the Iraqi civil war. The Iranians say they don't want a partition of Iraq, either. Tehran wants a unified, democratic Iraq -- with their Shiite allies in the driver's seat, to be sure, but with Sunnis content enough that they stop fighting.

Iran is suspicious of a U.S. policy that seeks Iranian help even as it encourages regime change in Tehran. "You don't negotiate with someone who wants to overthrow you,'' one Iranian official told me. Iran's ruling mullahs are said to worry on a deeper level that in talking with America, the Islamic republic would lose its legitimacy. There's an abiding suspicion that such a dialogue would only bring "humiliation and intimidation,'' as one Iranian official puts it.

How to bridge this gap? There's actually a precise formula that was laid out by Iranian diplomats in early 2003, while they were conducting back channel talks about Afghanistan and Iraq with the United States. Those conversations, mediated by the Swiss ambassador in Tehran, produced an Iranian document outlining the path to a broad "dialogue in mutual respect.''

The Iranians thought they were amending a document drafted by Richard Armitage, the deputy secretary of state at the time. Armitage tells me he has no recollection of such a proposal, but its provenance matters less than the fact the Iranians found it an acceptable framework. The document they bounced back to the U.S. summarized "Iranian aims,'' headed by a "halt in U.S. hostile behavior,'' "abolishment of all sanctions'' and joint efforts to achieve a democratic Iraq. The Iranians accepted that U.S. aims in the negotiations would include assurances that Iran wouldn't develop nuclear weapons and recognition of Israel under a two-state solution to the Palestinian problem.

This 2003 dialogue collapsed largely because of an Iranian demand for "pursuit of anti-Iranian terrorists'' from the Mujaheddin-e Khalq organization who were in Iraq. Absurdly, the Pentagon balked because of a fantasy that the group could help foment revolution in Iran. The Iranians may now say that the 2003 dialogue for "mutual respect '' is off the table, but Baker should find out -- by going to Tehran.

Iran will demand a price for any help it offers in Iraq. So will Syria, which is already positioning its proxies for restoration of Syrian influence in Lebanon. There will be a temptation to overreach, as the Syrians clearly are doing, and the prices demanded may be too steep for America to pay. But the essence of a negotiation is that, in the pursuit of mutual interest, the parties narrow their demands to ones that are achievable. This is the kind of conversation America should be having and -- god-from-a-machine willing -- it may begin soon.

(c) 2006, Washington Post Writers Group

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