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Talking to Syria and Iran could benefit Mideast, U.S.

Iran and Syria - Iraq's most difficult neighbors - may have zero interest in helping the Bush administration save face over the Iraqi quagmire.

But the two countries have their own reasons for wanting to stabilize Iraq, and they might play a constructive role if only the administration ever decides to talk to them.

"By continuing to keep them at bay, it's extended the time frame of the problems we've seen on the ground,'' says Erik Leaver, an Iraq expert at the Institute for Policy Studies.

Engaging Iran and Syria is among the most controversial recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, whose report this week describes the "grave and deteriorating'' situation in a country sandwiched between two longtime nemeses of the United States.

The administration branded Iran part of the "axis of evil'' and accuses both it and Syria of supporting radical groups and stirring up trouble throughout much of the Middle East.

Yet "given the ability of Iran and Syria to influence events within Iraq and their interest in avoiding chaos in Iraq, the United States should try to engage them constructively,'' the study group said in its report.

If only for self-serving reasons, Iran has played a generally positive role in another trouble spot, Afghanistan, since the U.S.-led coalition ousted the Taliban in 2001. Iran, a Shiite Muslim country, considered the anti-Shiite Taliban so much of a threat that the Iranians cooperated in the process of forming a new Afghan government headed by President Hamid Karzai.

"They could have been spoilers if they wanted,'' said Marvin Weinbaum, a scholar in residence at the Middle East Institute and former State Department analyst on Afghanistan. "But at the moment, they are among the most important supporters of Karzai for the reason that if he fails, they're looking at a return of the Taliban.''

Like the United States, Iran has also tried to stem the flow of Afghan heroin, which now accounts for 92 percent of the world's supply. And Iran has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into rebuilding Afghanistan, especially western provinces near the Iranian border.

"By comparison with the south,'' Weinbaum said, "it's a very peaceful part of the country.''

Although it has tacitly cooperated with the United States in Afghanistan, Iran remains nervous about the large U.S. military presence there just as it worries about the 150,000 American troops in Iraq. The Iranians might be more willing to help stabilize Iraq if they thought that would speed a reduction in U.S. troop levels, as recommended by the Iraq Study Group.

"If they would do their part, we could get out of there sooner - that's the linkage,'' Weinbaum said. "Their interests and ours could coincide.''

In a news conference Wednesday, James Baker, co-chairman of the study group, conceded that Iran is not "champing at the bit'' to talk with the United States about Iraq. But, he added, the matter should be put to the Iranians "so the world can see the rejectionist attitude they are projecting by that action.''

Baker sounded more optimistic about holding a "constructive dialog'' with Syria, while stressing there should be no letup in investigations into the murders of anti-Syrian politicians in Lebanon.

"With respect to Syria, there's some strong indication that they would be in a position to help us and might want to help us,'' Baker said.

Like Iran, Syria fears a total meltdown of Iraq, which would send even more refugees streaming across its borders. Syria already has taken in as many as 750,000 Iraqis fleeing violence in their country - violence the Bush administration claims has been stoked by weapons and foreign fighters coming in from Syria.

Syria already has tightened its borders, and many experts think it could play a valuable role in stabilizing the entire Middle East if the United States gave assurances on two matters dear to the Syrians:

One, that the Bush administration won't seek regime change in Syria, and two, that Washington will help negotiate the return of the Golan Heights, which Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East War.

In return, Syria "could hermetically seal the border with Iraq and resume intelligence cooperation with the United States, especially on issues of terrorism and Islamic jihadi movements,'' said Alon Ben-Meir, an expert on the Mideast at New York University. "(Syria) would stop causing trouble in Lebanon and dramatically weaken Hezbollah,'' the radical Lebanese group that fought a war with Israel last summer.

Just as significantly, Ben-Meir said, improved U.S-Syrian relations would weaken the odd alliance between Syria - a secular Sunni Arab country - and Iran, a non-Arab Shiite theocracy.

"There is now a major conflict in Iraq between Sunni and Shiite that could spill over into the entire region,'' Ben-Meir said. "Getting Syria out of the Shiite orbit will be very important for Saudi Arabia, for Jordan, for Lebanon and critically important for Israel. So there's an all--around good reason for talking to Syria.''

Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at susan@sptimes.com.

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