IT'S EASY to see the potential advantage to Iran of opening negotiations with the United States on Iraq. The sudden announcement by Iran's national security chief Thursday that Tehran would accept an offer of dialogue made months ago by the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad came as members of the U.N. Security Council were meeting to discuss a council statement about the Iranian nuclear program.
That statement could be the first in an escalating series of steps to force Tehran to give up the enrichment of uranium and fully cooperate with international inspectors. Preventing such diplomatic action has been Iran's main aim since its illegal nuclear program was discovered in 2004; the failure to stop the issue from reaching the Security Council has prompted some visible handwringing and backbiting among the mullahs.
By drawing the Bush administration into talks about Iraq, the Iranians give themselves a shot at splintering or distracting the fragile coalition that may be forming in New York. Already Iranian officials are speaking openly about the possibility that any discussions would expand into the broader security dialogue that Tehran has long coveted with the United States. In Iraq -- where American soldiers are dying from Iranian-supplied roadside bombs and sectarian violence by Iranian-supported militias is steadily mounting -- the Islamic regime has a tacit and sinister offer to make: Back down in New York, and the carnage in Baghdad might just drop off. Even the appearance that the Bush administration might be considering such a trade-off would worsen the situation in Iraq and wreck a year of careful and mostly effective anti-proliferation diplomacy.
The right response to the Iranian initiative is to limit any discussions to short-term U.S. priorities in Iraq and to ensure that the exchange is as open as possible. In theory, the United States and Iran share an interest in preventing an all-out Iraqi civil war, and thus in the establishment of a government that could rein in both the Sunni insurgency and the Shiite militias. But Iran's other objectives in Iraq are mostly inimical: It has promoted the creation of a Shiite ministate in southern Iraq that would control the country's largest oil fields and be dominated by Iran's allies; it hopes that the Sunni insurgency will meanwhile bleed American troops and exhaust U.S. willpower.
The U.S. goal of a broad and cohesive Iraqi government that would fairly balance Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish interests and be defended by a national Iraqi army would, if achieved, check Iranian ambitions. If Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad can advance that cause through talks with Iran, good. But it will be worth bearing in mind that Tehran has agreed to sit down with him for entirely different reasons.