The American public (and for that matter, ordinary Iranians as well) could be forgiven if they failed to make much sense out of the news from Iraq and Iran this past week. News bulletins from the region reported a rapid-fire series of public announcements, and unless you knew what lies behind them, they seemed disconnected. So here's a little background to help you connect the dots.
The dots were:
Monday, February 11th: Defense Secretary Robert Gates announces in Baghdad he would support a temporary halt in the drawdown of U.S. troops from Iraq next summer.
Tuesday, February 12th: Iran announces it will hold the fourth round of public talks with the U.S. on improving security in Iraq soon. Later that day, Imad Mughniyeh, who masterminded two decades of attacks against Americans and other westerners in the Middle East and has close ties to Iran, is assassinated in Syria. The State Department says â€œthe world is a better place without this man.â€ Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issues a statement blaming Israel but says nothing about possible American involvement.
Wednesday, February 13th: The Iranian Foreign Minister confirms the date for the next round of Baghdad talks with U.S. officials will be announced soon. The date is believed to be Friday.
Thursday, February 14th: The Iraqi Foreign Minister says the Iranians want to postpone the security talks â€œfor some time, for some unknown reason.â€ Hours later, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announces Iran has fixed the date for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to visit Baghdad. The March 2-3 visit will be a far more important event, the first ever visit by a president of the Islamic Republic. The White House says it supports the visit, so long as Iran stops supporting â€œextremists in Iraq who kill innocent Iraqis and Americans.â€
So what's going on?
The link that connects the dots is the back channel negotiations that the United States and Iran have been conducting for some time - how long is not clear, because neither side wants to admit to its public that is trying to cut a deal with the enemy on the future of Iraq. Although they continue to talk tough publicly, there are clear signs that both sides want a deal.
1. There may be military reasons for a pause in the drawdown of American troops from Iraq, but I suspect the most important reason is to maintain pressure on Iran. If Americans make a quick exit from Iraq and leave a vacuum that Iran could fill, the Iranians will have less incentive to negotiate with Washington.
2. The fact that the assassination of Mughniyeh did not derail plans for the Iranian president's visit to Baghdad is a sign of how much the Iranians want to make a deal. They postponed the low-level security talks, presumably because they did not want to be seen talking to the Americans right after the assassination. But the planned presidential visit to Baghdad is a sign that progress is being made in the secret talks.
What kind of a deal are the United States and Iran trying to reach?
Each side wants to create an Iraqi government that will be friendly to its interests. Both sides may have to settle for something less - an Iraq that is strong enough to prevent Iran from dominating it, but not so strong or unfriendly that it would threaten Iran. The Iraqis are mere pawns in all this, but they could be spoilers if the country falls apart as a result of their internal feuds.
Meanwhile, the fact that an Iranian president is willing to visit a country that is occupied by 160,000 American troops (and who presumably will be providing security for him) should tell you that something is afoot.