I call it the Q Factor. It is the true purpose behind a thing for which any other reasoning may be advanced in public except the true one, although everyone knows what is really going on. It pays to keep this in mind when analyzing the Iraq regional summit which will include Iran.
The name comes from the Q Tip, a great American product that has been on the supermarket and drug store shelf for at least the 48 years I have been alive. In my conscious memory, I do not recall seeing anyone I knew buy Q Tips for any purpose but cleaning ear canals. However, if you look carefully at your box you will note the entire back is devoted to a list of household uses, including cleaning the pesky grime that clusters between the keys I am typing on right now. Then at the bottom comes a warning not to clean your ear canal with this product, it could be dangerous. In short, the fear of lawsuits from geeks who poke holes in their eardrums forces everyone to buy and sell this innocuous item pretending to use it for every purpose but its primary one.
That is the Q Factor, Q being a perfect letter for this vibe, because it has the feel of query and quest and question and quandary, not to mention the QT. So many transactions in life are conducted on its basis. It is common in business situations to be forced to deal with some person who does not really belong in the company. Whether it’s the cousin of the boss or his paramour, everyone has to respond to that person’s input with rejoinders more serious than “You are here as a front, so shut up and don’t ruin the façade.”
Which brings us to the thorny problem of Iraq inviting its neighbors in for tea, including Iran. Tehran has a lovely regime going these days, featuring Holocaust denial, nuclear weaponry programs, international statements condemning the existence of Israel — and actual support of insurgents inside Iraq killing U.S. forces. Hitler is a big hero over there for doing the Holocaust they deny he did. Additionally, Iran is the main source of arms for Hezbollah, including the devastating rockets that hit Haifa and Safed last summer. In essence, Iran conducted a full war against Israel using Hezbollah as a proxy. The U.S. should not engage with Iran in any talks less blunt than “Stand down or we will knock you down.”
At the same time, it would be suicide for Iraq as a country reconstituting itself post-Saddam to refuse to meet with Iran, a close and dangerous neighbor. If they cannot speak to each other, then essentially the new Iraq is declaring war against Iran, something it is simply not equipped to do. Consequently, the natural course would be for Iraq to pretend Iran has not been hostile to its sovereignty in any way. They would have la-dee-dah cooperation meetings about water and oil and border crossings and if Koresh was a more powerful king than Nebuchadnezzar. Perhaps in the fullness of time Iran might stop making mischief, or perhaps not; that would remain the unmentionable Q Factor. But a livable condition would prevail.
This creates an awful anomaly for the policymakers of the U.S. For us to talk to Iran would smack of capitulation. For Iraq not to talk to Iran would come across as provocation. For Iraq to speak to Iran without us while we are still in Iraq reeks of equivocation. Each of these three scenarios is problematic. The best choice looks to be the fourth, although it too is far from ideal. It goes like this: we refuse to speak to Iran separately, but we recognize the necessity for Iraq to speak to Iran and we will attend those talks in our role as joint custodian of Iraq. Like supervised visitations with the ex, something along those lines.
The Bush Administration is taking heat for rendering that very choice. Sure it is a tightrope walk not to give Iran the wrong message, and not to let Iran use the media as a foil while they pretend to get the wrong message. Yet there seems to be no better alternative. But once we are there, I suggest we move the issue of Iran’s closet aggression from being the Q Factor to assuming a real place on the agenda. And we need to listen very very carefully; our diplomats cannot afford to have wax in their ears.