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Stratfor: SOFA and Iranian Options

Stratfor

November 18, 2008

Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, the head of Iran’s judiciary and a senior Iranian figure close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, publicly praised the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) reached between the United States and the government of Iraq. He said that the Iraqi government acted "very well" in approving the SOFA — the first time a senior Iranian official had anything good to say about the agreement.

This is clearly a public shift in Iranian policy, which has thus far been critical of SOFA, which would allow the United States to remain in Iraq for another three years. Iran’s position has been that the United States should withdraw immediately. Therefore, in accepting the presence of U.S. forces for three years, Tehran appears to have made a concession. Publicly the Iranians have been opposing the pact, but behind the scenes they were part of the negotiation process. They have also cut the ground out from under those Iraqi Shia who oppose SOFA — such as Muqtada al-Sadr’s movement, which has said it would oppose the treaty via "legal avenues," which means there is the possibility of some trouble in the legislature.

But we can be confident that Shahroudi did not say this casually. He is too well connected and too influential to have simply spoken out of turn. The Iranians have signaled their approval. But it should be remembered that this was not an official government endorsement. Iran can potentially back off its approval. Nevertheless, it is as close as we can get to approval by Iran without a major sea change in U.S.-Iranian relations.

That’s the real question here — whether Shahroudi’s statement represents a redefinition of U.S.-Iranian relations. There have been persistent reports of the Bush administration opening low-level diplomatic relations with Iran before it leaves office. There have been indications from Tehran that such an opening would be welcome. Undoubtedly there have been quiet talks between U.S. and Iranian officials. Senior Iraqi Shiite leaders were cool on SOFA until this weekend, when they shifted their position, opening the door for an agreement. It is speculative, but not unreasonable, to wonder what role the Iranian government played in changing the Shiite leaders’ minds and what other elements there are to any U.S.-Iranian understanding that Shahroudi’s statement was part of.

And then there is the important question of why Iran is so happy. One answer is that it has moved closer to an agreement with the United States that guarantees its interests in Iraq. The other is that the SOFA, while giving the United States another three years in Iraq, guarantees that U.S. forces will leave Iraq after three years and reduce their presence in Iraq’s cities in 2009. If we were cynical, we would wonder whether Iran’s good cheer — agreement with Washington or not — stems from the fact that the United States will be gone and Iran will still be there after three years. Iran can wait and it knows that in three years or 10, the Baghdad government will be fragile and manipulable.

Indeed, the two explanations are fully compatible. The United States and Iran may well have reached quiet understandings that have made SOFA achievable, and Iran is content with those agreements. At the same time, the Iranians may be thinking ahead and recognizing that SOFA clears the way — should the situation permit and require — for much greater Iranian involvement in Iraq down the road. SOFA gives the Iranians options, and it should not be a surprise that they are pleased.

As for the United States, SOFA, if implemented, closes down options and limits influence. With the United States pulling out in three years — or perhaps less — Iraqi groups know that they will not be able to depend on American forces to protect their interests. They will be moving away from the United States to secure their positions on their own. As that happens, U.S. influence in Baghdad will begin to decrease dramatically.

This leaves open the question of what Washington — George W. Bush’s or Barack Obama’s — thinks the status of U.S.-Iranian relations will be in three years. As it currently stands, SOFA, without any other understandings, works only if the Baghdad government is effective enough and motivated to block Iranian influence in three years. Without that, Iraq could well come into an Iranian orbit. The United States is clearly betting on Baghdad.






:: Article nr. 48861 sent on 18-nov-2008 09:08 ECT

www.uruknet.info?p=48861

Link: www.stratfor.com/geopolitical_diary/20081117_geopolitical_diary_sofa_and_iranian
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