Barring a last-minute hitch Iran and the United States are expected to begin talks on what they have both called "measures to benefit the Iraqi people." The euphemism is unlikely to deceive anyone. What Tehran and Washington are really interested in is to find out each other's true intentions in Iraq.
There is no doubt that both Iran and the United States have benefited from the demise of the Baathist regime under Saddam Hussein. The US has eliminated an enemy that it had wounded but not killed in 1991, something that Machiavelli had warned against almost five centuries ago. With Iraq likely to have a pluralist regime in which Shiites are a majority, Iran may no longer face a coalition of Sunni Arab regimes determined to challenge it in the region.
But while US and Iranian interests in Iraq converge up to a point, the two powers have diametrically opposite visions when it comes to the future of Iraq, indeed of the entire Middle East.
The US wants a democratic and pro-West Iraq with a capitalist market-based economy, and open to the new globalization trends. In his better moments President George W. Bush has even spoken of turning Iraq into a model for the entire Arab world, indeed for all Muslim countries. And that, of course, is indirect competition with Iran that claims that its own system is the ideal one for all Muslims.
Iran wants an Iraqi regime that adopts at least some aspects of Khomeinism if only to prove that the Islamic republic in Tehran is not a historic anomaly. The Tehran leadership is also concerned that the emergence of a Shiite-dominated democracy next door may well inspire a democratic revolution in Iran as well. With he center of Shiite theological authority clearly shifting to Najaf, Iran's rulers may risk losing the religious card they have played for the past 27 years.
The crucial question in regional politics now is whether Iraq, and beyond it the Middle East, will be reshaped the way US wants it or remolded as Iran's Khomeinist leaders have dreamed of since 1979.
It is against that background that it is important to know what Iran would actually bring to the table when, and if, the promised talks materialize.
Iran has already scored a point simply by being invited by the US for talks. Although Iran did nothing to oust Saddam Hussein, this invitation bestows on it a stature that only a liberating power would normally have. For example, at the end of World War II no one invited Switzerland or Poland, as neighbors of Germany, to discuss its future.
Iran has scored yet another point by positioning itself as a power speaking for the Iraqi people. The leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), Abdul-Aziz Hakim has helped Iran's maneuver by issuing a verbal "invitation" to enter the talks almost as a protector of the people of Iraq. The fact that Hakim and his party have been supported by Iran for more than a quarter of a century does not diminish the importance of that move.
The Iranian strategy is clear from the outset. Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki has said that Iran's chief priority is to discuss the withdrawal of the US-led coalition forces from Iraq.
Mottaki knows that the US and its allies are in Iraq under a United Nations' mandate that will run out in December. He also knows that that mandate cannot be renewed without the consent of the newly elected Iraqi Parliament and government. Finally, he also knows that President George W. Bush is under pressure from both Democrats and Republicans to bring the Iraqi episode to an end. So, when the Americans and their allies start to leave, as they are certain to do later this year, Iran would be able to pretend that it was its efforts that ended the "occupation".
Iran, however, has more important ambitions in Iraq. Strategically, it sees post-Saddam Iraq as a corridor through which it can communicate with Syria and Lebanon that it considers as part of its broader glacis. In fact, once Tehran's influence is established in Iraq as it is in Syria and Lebanon, Iran would be able to project power in the Levant for the first time since the early 7th century when the Persian Empire under Khosrow Parviz drove the Byzantines out of Mesopotamia and what is now Syria.
It is no accident that scholars in Tehran have just rediscovered the set of agreements that Iran had signed with the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century. Known as the Erzerum treaties, these documents give Iran a droit de regard (the right of oversight) over Iraq's principal Shiite centers of Najaf, Kerbala and Kazemayn (now a suburb of Baghdad).
The agreements also enable Iran to take "appropriate action", a code word for military intervention, if it felt that its security, or the access of Iranian pilgrims to "holy places", was being threatened by the presence of foreign hostile forces in southern Iraq.
If implemented those agreements could lead to the emergence of an Iranian administration in the "holy cities" and an Iranian veto on key aspects of Iraq's foreign policy.
Iran has already used those agreements to persuade the new Iraqi government to sign an agreement under which more than 600,000 Iranian pilgrims would be able to visit Iraq each year with little control from the Iraqi authorities.
The second set of documents that Tehran is now dusting up is known as the Algiers Accords, negotiated and signed in Algiers, Geneva, Tehran and Baghdad between 1975 and 1976. These give Iran and Iraq shared sovereignty over the Shatt Al-Arab estuary that constitutes Iraq's principal outlet to the open seas. The agreements, signed by Saddam Hussein as a tactical ploy to end Iranian support for the Kurds in the 1970s, would, if fully implemented, give Iran a chokehold on Iraq's foreign trade, including oil exports.
Iran does not want the US to fail in Iraq. It wants the US to succeed in eliminating all possibility of a new Sunni-dominated regime being installed in Baghdad. But Iran wants the US to succeed at the highest possible cost, both in blood and treasure.
It is a mystery why Washington wants to give Tehran a place at the high table in Iraq. It is certain that the Islamic republic will continue doing whatever it can to make life difficult for the US-led coalition. The supply of new and more lethal explosives, smuggled into Iraq from Iran, partly via Syria is unlikely to dry up. Nor is Tehran likely to end the training programs launched by its Lebanese Hezbollah clients for Iraqi militants.
The decision to involve Iran in Iraqi affairs is likely to anger the United States regional allies who have never discounted the possibility of an Irano-American deal that might leave them in the lurch. The Arab states will also be concerned about the possibility of Iraq's Arab identity being diluted as a result of Iranian intervention.
The US may have made this strange move because of the experiment in Afghanistan where talks with Iran did help speed up the defeat of the Taleban and the creation of a new regime in Kabul.
But Iraq is not Afghanistan if only because it offers far more scope for Iranian mischief making. The invitation to Iraq is also likely to encourage Iran in its defiance of the United Nations on the nuclear issue. After all if Iran is treated as a major power in one domain it cannot be "bullied" as a weakling in another.
Has the Bush administration made its first major mistake with regard to Iraq? It is too early to tell. But this decision may be even worse than a mistake; it may be unnecessary. And, as Talleyrand noted almost 200 years ago, in politics doing something that is not necessary is worse than making a mistake.