Will U.S.-Iran Talks on Iraq Lead to Other Topics? Abbas Milani, director of the Iranian Studies program at Stanford University, assesses Monday's bilateral talks in Baghdad between the United States and Iran, the first such talks in almost thirty years.
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Analysis from Abbas Milani of Stanford University

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Will U.S.-Iran Talks on Iraq Lead to Other Topics?

Analysis from Abbas Milani of Stanford University

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More now on U.S.-Iranian relations and the war in Iraq. Abbas Milani is director of Iranian Studies at Stanford and joins us now. Welcome to the program.

Mr. ABBAS MILANI (Director, Iranian Studies Program, Stanford University): Thank you.

SIEGEL: Both ambassadors called this meeting today positive. And Ambassador Crocker spoke of, in his phrase, pretty good congruence between U.S. and Iranian policies in Iraq. Do you agree that Washington and Tehran want pretty much the same outcome in Iraq?

Mr. MILANI: I think there are several key points where both countries want the same. They both want the Shiite government strengthened, they both don't want a civil war for different reasons, they don't want the partition of Iraq, again for different reasons, and that is three very big points of convergence.

SIEGEL: Do they have similar views on, say, de-Baathification, letting more members of the old ruling party - probably Sunni Muslims - into government and maintaining the authority of the Kurds in the north of the country?

Mr. MILANI: No, I think there are many points that this convergence - de-Baathification is certainly one of them. The point of the U.S. being completely free from any entanglement in Iraq is another one. The regime in Tehran certainly doesn't want that because they know well that they might get the brunt of Washington's attention.

SIEGEL: Well, does that mean then that when the Iraqi prime minister invites the ambassadors from Iran and the United States to meet, that in effect, Prime Minister Maliki has some leverage from the presence of the Iranians who might want even a tougher stance by his government against the other groups in the country than the United States might want at this point.

Mr. MILANI: I think so. I think the Iranians certainly have been pushing for a very strong, centralized Shiite authority. The one that is in power now to their liking is not strong enough. It is not cohesive enough, and has allowed places like Kurdistan a little too much independence. They know full well that the continuation of the status quo in Kurdistan, for example, is going to mean trouble for them. And it has already led to a lot of talks in the Iranian Kurdistan about learning the lessons of the Iraqis. So, in that sense, they want a unified Shiite government dominating over the entire country.

SIEGEL: Ambassador Crocker said today after the meeting that the Iraqis, the Americans and the Iranians all agreed that the focus of their discussion was on Iraq and Iraq only, implying no linkage to all the many other sticking points between Washington and Tehran. Given the nuclear program, the recent arrests of several Iranian-Americans, Iranian support of Hezbollah, can there really be a dialogue that's only about Iraq?

Mr. MILANI: I don't think so. I think they might well begin focused on Iraq, but willy-nilly, I think eventually they'll going to get to other topics. For example, you cannot talk about Iranian regime support for the Shiites in Iraq without eventually also talking about the influence that Hezbollah is having in Iraq. And many other issues like this have a natural linkage to them, and whether the two countries want it or not, eventually, they will be subjects of discussion.

SIEGEL: Should one infer from recent talks between Iran's nuclear mediator and Javier Solana of the European envoy, and this meeting between the Iranian ambassador and the U.S. ambassador in Iraq - some message from Tehran that more pragmatic voices than that of President Ahmadinejad are calling the shots right now in Iranian policy.

Mr. MILANI: I think that would be a very, very good reading of the situation. Everything that Larijani himself has said...

SIEGEL: Larijani, the nuclear negotiator for Iran?

Mr. MILANI: Yes. Larijani has just gone on record a couple of days ago offering four-points program to solve ostensibly the Lebanese problem. All of these to me indicate that the regime is in fact on a charm offensive and wants to convince everybody that they are in this for serious negotiations, and that they are trying to end Ahmadinejad's rather stupid rhetorical language of the past year or two.

SIEGEL: Abbas Milani of Stanford University. Thank you very much for talking with us today.

Mr. MILANI: It's been a pleasure.

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