, Foreign Correspondent
December 01, 2008
Iran officially hailed Iraq’s laboriously negotiated security pact with the United States in a telling sign that Tehran is keen to improve relations with the United States when Barack Obama assumes power next month.
Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman, Hasan Qashqavi, said yesterday that Tehran would back the controversial accord, which was passed by the Iraqi parliament last Thursday, provided it is approved by the Iraqi people in a referendum scheduled for July 30.
The US-Iraq status of forces agreement (Sofa) sets a timetable for US forces to leave Iraq in three years, although they will pull out of cities and towns by the middle of next year. If a popular Iraqi vote fails to endorse the withdrawal plan, US troops may have to leave earlier – an outcome Iran would prefer.
Tehran had long criticised Sofa. The president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, last month said Sofa’s goal was to allow Washington to "enslave and exploit" Iraq. His comments were echoed by Iran’s powerful parliamentary speaker, Ali Larijani, one of the president’s arch conservative rivals, who agreed that the pact runs "against Iraq’s national security interests".
And as late as last week, leading Iranian daily newspapers, which are influential because they reflect the thinking within key regime circles despite their unimpressive sales figures, fulminated against the deal as a "sell-out" to the United States that would turn Iraq into a "source of danger to its neighbours".
Excitedly, Jomhuri-e-Eslami predicted that a popular uprising would erupt in Iraq if parliament approved the Sofa deal.
Although Iranian officials remained mum on the Iraq-US accord, most Iranian media had focused coverage to opposition to the pact by Muqtada al Sadr, the anti-US Iraqi Shia cleric whose 30 loyalist deputies in the 275-seat Iraqi legislature rejected the landmark accord.
The tone in Iran softened rapidly, however, after the deal affirmed that Iraq’s territory could not be used to attack neighbouring states. One of Tehran’s central concerns was that the United States could use Iraq as a springboard for military strikes on Iran.
Tehran also felt obliged to revise its hostile rhetoric after the deal was backed in Iraq’s parliament with the support of the main Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish blocs. Iran did not want to be seen to oppose the will of the Iraqi people or jeopardise its cherished friendship with its allies in the Shiite-led government in Baghdad.
"Iran’s support of the agreement signals its willingness to be helpful to the US, granted a different US approach to Iran," said Trita Parsi, the president of the National Iranian American Council, which promotes diplomacy to resolve disputes. "Though there is a limit to how much Iran could work against the agreement since its allies in the Iraqi government favoured it, Tehran’s turnaround is still noteworthy," Dr Parsi said in an interview.
Mr Obama’s election also spurred Iran to backpedal on its hostile stance towards Sofa. Those urging improved relations in both Tehran and Washington argue the two countries have vital shared strategic interests, not only in Iraq’s stability but also in Afghanistan’s. Iran is as alarmed by the growing strength of the virulently anti-Shiite Taliban as is the United States.
Mr Ahmadinejad made clear he viewed Mr Obama’s election as an opportunity to mend ties with Washington after years of soaring tension during the presidency of George W Bush. The outgoing US president branded Iran part of an "axis of evil" in 2002 when a moderate, Mohammad Khatami, was in power in Tehran.
The Iranian incumbent, whose re-election hopes have been jeopardised by his economic mismanagement and plunging oil prices, responded with alacrity to Mr Obama’s triumph by sending him an unprecedented congratulatory message. The US president-elect, and his future vice president, Joseph Biden, have in the past urged unconditional dialogue with Iran.
But Mr Obama is being buffeted by a flurry of conflicting advice from Washington politicians and Middle East academics on how to transform US dealings with a nuclear-ambitious Iran. Two broad fronts have emerged. The first recommends getting tougher with Iran by tightening sanctions and bolstering Washington’s negotiating hand by beefing up military presence in the Gulf. The second argues that military and economic coercion have been counter-productive: unconditional talks are the way to go. Iran’s endorsement of Sofa should strengthen the position of those espousing a less hawkish approach.
Officially, Tehran’s rather coy position is that it does not expect much change from Washington under an Obama presidency. Even as Mr Qashqavi, Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman, endorsed the Sofa accord, he said: "One of Mr Obama’s conditions for the establishment of ties with Iran has been the cessation of Iran’s uranium enrichment which in itself is indicative of lack of change in Washington’s perspective towards Iran."
Certainly, the US president-elect’s choice of Hillary Clinton as his secretary of state, gave little cause for Iranian cheer. Memorably, she vowed to "obliterate" Iran if it attacked Israel when she was running against Mr Obama to be the Democratic presidential candidate.
Yet Mr Obama enjoys celebrity status among many Iranians hoping his slogan of "change" also will apply to their country. "Why doesn’t Iran have an Obama?" lamented a populist reformist weekly recently – before it was banned by Iran’s Press Supervisory Board.
There was clearly heated behind-the-scenes wrangling in Tehran over Sofa. Ayatollah Ali Jannati, a prominent cleric who heads Iran’s influential Guardian Council, had opposed the accord until last week when he performed a rare U-turn at Friday prayers, giving Sofa his lukewarm but important approval. The Iraqi parliament had approved the deal under US pressure but "did well" in deciding to put it to a referendum, he told worshippers during a sermon. "Then the ball will be in the court of the Americans who claim that they are after democracy," he said.
More effusive was the head of Iran’s judiciary, Ayatollah Hashemi Shahroudi, who is a close ally of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He said the Maliki government in Baghdad had "acted very wisely" in its handling of the deal.