Talks Open New Doors for Iraq and Its Neighbors

The Bush administration dismissed most recommendations of the Iraq Study Group report, but did move toward talks with Iran and Syria. Scott Lasensky from the U.S. Institute of Peace offers some thoughts about what the talks may mean for Iraq and its neighbors.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Joining us now to talk more about the Iraq conference is Scott Lasensky. He's a senior research associate at the United States Institute of Peace and the director of the Iraq and its Neighbors Project. Welcome back to the show, Scott.

Mr. SCOTT LASENSKY (United States Institute of Peace): Good to be with you, Liane.

HANSEN: The Bush administration originally rejected the Iraq Study Group's suggestion of talking to Syria and Iran. What does it mean that the U.S. has sat down with them?

Mr. LASENSKY: It's a very important step. It's a modest step. It's an initial step, very important. The change in policy, I think, has to do with three factors. First, the situation on the ground is dire. It's getting worse and worse all the time. It's even worse than it was when the Iraq Study Group report came out a few months ago, and I think the stark situation on the ground sort of sobers everybody up, and it's leading to a reassessment of some of the decisions about regional diplomacy now, and that's a very important factor. That's factor number one.

Number two, as you alluded to, the political pressure here in Washington has gone up considerably, beginning with the Iraq Study Group report in early December, then with the Democrats taking control of the Congress, but also there's a lot of leading Republicans calling for intensive regional diplomacy. You had four senators in Damascus in December. They weren't all Democrats.

And last, I think there's regional anxieties. The fears, the concerns, the anxieties of Iraq's neighbors are surging, and the region wants this. I think the other parties are eager and willing to sit down and give diplomacy a chance.

HANSEN: So explain then, do Syria and Iran as well as the rest of Iraq's neighbors stand to gain anything from cooperating with the U.S.?

Mr. LASENSKY: Well, you know, it's a classic collective action dilemma. I mean, you can't deny it. There are some common interests. All the parties don't have all their interests in common, but there are a number of common interests, but there's no common framework.

I think everybody stands to gain a little bit, even with Syria and Iran. Neither have an interest in the export of radical Islamist militancy. Neither have an interest in Iraq's civil war spilling over the borders. They have their differences with the United States, and we certainly have our differences with both of them, but I think the deep and unabiding interest in trying to bring some modest amount of stability to Iraq requires us to sit down with everybody, and the parties want to.

And the interesting this is, there's a whole range of functional issues, which I think you can talk about which are devoid of a lot of the passionate issues that afflict the region, whether it's Israel or Lebanon, Hamas, Hezbollah. When it comes to Iraq, parties can sit down and talk about the refugee crisis, millions of Iraqi refugees inside Iraq and across its borders, crime, corruption, border security.

It's a whole range of functional issues, and I think that's why there's sort of a glimmer of hope coming out of this meeting yesterday in Baghdad. The establishment of some working groups, I understand, are going to keep technical experts at the table in between the conferences in the days ahead, and I think that's very important.

HANSEN: I want to go back to what you were saying about the violence. Do you think that Iran and Syria's participation can really help lessen the violence in Iraq?

Mr. LASENSKY: You know, there's no light switch. You can't just turn the violence on and off. There's a whole range of factors, both inside Iraq and from some of the neighbors, fueling the violence. Clearly there's indications that assistance and weaponry comes from outside, but on top of that there's also threats that should the situation worsen, this could escalate, and even from countries like Saudi Arabia.

If they see this situation getting even more dire, all the neighbors may join the fight and support the factions that they feel most closely allied to, either politically or ethnically or religiously. There's a lot fueling the violence, and there's no single way to tamp it down, but it certainly doesn't help matters that the neighbors are all unilaterally pursuing their own policies.

This regional diplomatic process, which began yesterday but is going to continue in the days and weeks ahead is a modest effort, but I think it's a - it's worthwhile to pursue, and it's something that may bear some fruit.

HANSEN: Scott Lasensky is a senior research associate at the United States Institute of Peace and the director of the Iraq and its Neighbors Project. Thanks for coming in.

Mr. LASENSKY: Thank you, Liane.

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