In their excitement over the drama of American and Iranian diplomats trading barbs Tuesday, the mainstream press seems to have completely missed the significance of one tentative development--the US and Iran are discussing cooperation against al Qaeda.
Ambassador Ryan Crocker told reporters after his meeting with Iranian Ambassador Hassan Kazemi Qomi that, "We noted that Al Qaeda is an enemy really to all three of us, to the United States, to Iraq, and to Iran."
The two delegations agreed to form a security committee "that would address at an expert or technical level some issues relating to security-be that support to violent militias, Al Qaeda, or border security," Crocker said.
Granted it would take a pretty serious leap of faith to assume Iran would follow through with serious action, but at least they're talking about it. And a near-slip by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in an interview last week indicates that below-the-radar discussions on this particular topic actually preceded Tuesday's meeting.
In her response to a question about how the US can engage those who wish to do it harm, Rice told NPR:
"What is happening in Anbar, the province that was once said to be given over to al-Qaida, is really quite remarkable, where you have Sunni sheiks and maybe even some who, at one time, were associated with the insurgency, turning to fight al-Qaida, to take their streets back. And in fact, we are cooperating with those people against the common enemy that is al-Qaida. We have found reasons to talk to Iran in -- about a limited agenda. For instance, Ambassador Crocker has met with his Iranian counterpart and will likely do so again."
True cooperation against al Qaeda would have implications far beyond the specific benefit to Iraq's security, particularly considering the number of senior al Qaeda leaders who may be residing in Iran.
In the exodus from Afghanistan after the US began its post-9/11 bombardment, a number of senior al Qaeda leaders fled to Iran, where they were put under a reportedly lenient "house arrest."
"Intelligence officials" have told the NY Sun's Eli Lake that the classified version of the NIE on al Qaeda discussed regular meetings of an AQ leadership council in eastern Iran. Stephen Fidler reported in the Financial Times recently that "Western officials" told him al Qaeda was reconstituting a leadership structure in Iran, though it wasn't clear if Tehran was encouraging, or simply tolerating the presence.
According to Fidler, senior US official said the information had produced different assessments. “The most conservative, cautious intelligence assessment is that are turning a blind eye. But there are a lot of doubts about that,” he said.
“They are benefiting from the mayhem that AQ is carrying out. They don’t have to deal with al-Qaeda to benefit.”
Wildly assuming the talk of cooperation against al Qaeda is genuine, what would encourage such a shift in Iran? Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seems to almost enjoy US threats of military action as a consequence of intransigence on American priorities, but perhaps the Iranian leader sees sanctions compounding the ills of his failed economic policies.
The most intriguing possibility would be to see a trade of the "Irbil five"--Iranians detained by the US since January--for a few AQ members. Suleiman Abu Ghaith, bin Laden's propaganda minister, Saif al-Adel, his military planner and one of the FBI's most wanted, and son Saad bin Laden are all thought to be inside Iran.
Considering how eager Iran has been to bring home its five "diplomats," this could be the opening the US needs to get its hands on a bigger prize.