Back in the '70s, an exchange of ping pong players between the United States and China began a thawing of relations between the two countries that paved the way for Richard Nixon's famous trip to Beijing. Could we be entering a similar stage with Iran that could come to be known as "orange juice diplomacy"? Diane Sawyer certainly seems to hope so, judging by the way she pressed US ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad on Good Morning America today. Along the way, Sawyer seemed to willfully downplay the degree of Iran's responsibility for the Shia insurgency in Iraq.
Sawyer spoke from New York with Ambassador Khalilzad in Baghdad on the eve of a regional conference on security issues organized by the Iraqi government that will bring representatives of the United States into the same room with those from Iran and Syria. Sawyer quoted to the ambassador the recent remarks of David Satterfield, the State Department's Iraq coordinator: "If we are approached over orange juice by the Syrians or the Iranians we're not going to turn and walk away."
Sawyer seized on Satterfield's statement: "Are we talking to the Syrians and the Iranians, or are we dependent on orange juice?"
Khalilzad: "As you know, for some time Diane, we have said that we are willing to talk to the Iranians if we think it will be useful to the situation in Iraq."
Saywer: "Does it take orange juice for you to approach the Iranians and Syrians? Or are you going to do it?"
Khalilzad:"It will not take orange juice. We will have to either decide that there is an agreement we make to meet or we won't meet because we don't agree to it. And, well, if David Satterfield meant that if we run into each other and say hello or not that's what he was talking about. But for a meeting to occur, for substantive discussions to occur, there has to be an agreement ahead of time."
That's when Sawyer virtually injected herself into the diplomacy in a manner, to my way of thinking, that reflected either naivete about matters on the ground or an intentional downplaying of Iran's role. Said Sawyer: "You know these people, you speak Farsi, why not just go straight to them and say 'can you talk to them, the insurgents inside Iraq, and can we have a cease fire? Could you help possibly help broker a cease fire inside Iraq?'"
Sawyer ignored the fact that to a significant extent, Iran itself is the insurgency in Iraq. Iran is intimately involved in arming, and very possibly directing, major aspects of the Shia insurgency. Yet Sawyer portrayed matters as if Iran were a hands-off third party who might be in a position to use its good offices and fraternal ties to broker a cease fire.
Being the good diplomat he is, Khalilzad made that point to Diane, well, diplomatically:
"I have no problem engaging with them to make our points. But, the first point to make to them is that they need to stop arms, Iranian arms, coming across the border, being used against the coalition forces who are here at the request of the Iraqi government now and under U.N. mandate, and at the same time, for them not to support militias who are undermining the stability of Iraq and increasing problems."
Continued Khalizad: "I think that's the first major thing they could do. The next step is whether they can help with forces here who are undermining the security situation by engaging them or arranging things with them. This will be the first test -- will they do what's needed to stop the shipment of Iranian weapons, EFPs that have killed coalition soldiers, coming across the border from Iran?"
Mark was in Iraq in November. Contact him at email@example.com