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The Daily Star - March 12, 2009 by Rami G. Khouri The United States in the greater Middle East is doing the equivalent of walking and chewing gum at the same time - in other words doing more than one thing at a time, and tackling more than one political issue at a time. The Obama administration has named envoys to the Middle East peace process and Afghanistan and Pakistan, and is simultaneously re-establishing lines of communication with Syria and Iran. President Barack Obama this week said the US should consider speaking with some elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan in order to wind down that country's war. This is a worthy approach that will probably be supported widely in the US and abroad. It was also one of several key themes that dominated a fine two-day conference I just attended at the Issam Fares Center of the Fletcher School at Tufts University near Boston. The knowledgeable and experienced participants - academics, journalists, former senior military and political officials - kept returning to two core issues: a "grand bargain" is likely to be needed to resolve the tensions between the US and Iran that are so pivotal to other conflicts in the Middle East; and, the US has much work to do on this front because it knows nothing about key aspects of Iran's strategic aims, nuclear goals or motivations, or decision-making system. Washington and Tehran have not talked in a sustained way for 30 years, since the overthrow of Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi in 1979. The list of things the US and the West do not know about Iran is long, including crucial things like how the inner circle of decision-makers operates; what Iran will settle for in a deal on its nuclear enrichment capabilities; whether it wants a nuclear bomb or just the capability to make one if needed one day; and how it sees its vital national interests served through long-term relations with partners and allies throughout the Arab world. Iran has already achieved its important first goal, despite intense American-led threats, warnings and sanctions. It has established a spinning-centrifuge-based system for enriching uranium. Having faced down the demand to stop enrichment, Iran probably feels that it can negotiate from a position of strength. Now confronted with the Obama approach of talking rather than only sanctioning, the Iranians now face many new possibilities. The most intriguing but complex one is the idea of a "grand bargain," in which multiple players reach agreements to resolve several problems at once. Iran (like Syria on a smaller scale) is strategically placed to both talk and work on many fronts. Its links with Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Hizbullah and Hamas, for starters, provide opportunities for new understandings that could be strategically valuable for the US. It can certainly cooperate to make the American withdrawal from Iraq easier, and perhaps help cool down the conflict in Afghanistan. In return, it will want American and Western recognition of its right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, along with more intangible things like "respect" for its status and acknowledgment of its role as a major regional power. Conceding enrichment should be no problem, as Iran has already achieved this. Preventing the ultimate move towards creating a nuclear bomb will be the main issue to be negotiated here, and will require the Iranians being clearer about precisely what they desire and what they will settle for in their negotiations. Yet some experts who actually go to Iran and know it warn that the Iranian leadership may actually fear a grand bargain with the US, because the tension with Washington is a major source of regime legitimacy in Tehran. The only way to find out, they say, is for the Iranians and their adversaries in the West to meet and talk. Such a process will quickly separate the real grievances that both sides have against each other from the side issues or the third-party concerns of Israel or Arab Gulf states that have been taken up by the US. Achieving a grand bargain is a very complex operation, requiring juggling several different issues, and placating multiple interests among many players. The Americans, however, should have no trouble achieving this, because they have an impressive legacy of this sort of thing in the sports world: the three-way trade among professional basketball teams. This time-consuming endeavor requires knowing the precise weaknesses, strengths, aspirations and needs of several different teams, then crafting trades that send players moving around among three teams. The process works - and can be elegant at times - because those making the deal take the time to study its component elements realistically, and try to work out a deal that satisfies the minimum needs of each team. A grand bargain on Iraq, Iran, Syria, Afghanistan and Arab-Israeli peacemaking would require the same sort of complex analysis leading to agreements that satisfy the needs of all sides.

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