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Iran and the US exit strategy in Iraq

Iran may be a member of the "axis of evil" according to the Bush administration, but increasingly it has become clear that it also holds a key to the riddle of a working strategy for US troop withdrawal from Iraq. At least, that is the impression one gets by the recent statement by the US envoy to Iraq, reflected in Newsweek, regarding President George W Bush's authorization of a dialogue with Iran. Consequently, the question of future detente between Iran and the US has now gained new currency, as well as urgency...


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Iran and the US exit strategy in Iraq

Kaveh L Afrasiabi

December 2, 2005

Iran may be a member of the "axis of evil" according to the Bush administration, but increasingly it has become clear that it also holds a key to the riddle of a working strategy for US troop withdrawal from Iraq.

At least, that is the impression one gets by the recent statement by the US envoy to Iraq, reflected in Newsweek, regarding President George W Bush's authorization of a dialogue with Iran. Consequently, the question of future detente between Iran and the US has now gained new currency, as well as urgency.

Zalmay Khalilzad is, of course, no stranger to dialogue with Iran and, in fact, can take credit for making deals with Teheran in Afghanistan, particularly at the Bonn summit of Afghan factions, which shaped the nature of Kabul's government after its liberation from the yoke of the Taliban in 2001.

Recently, a revolutionary guard commander in Iran boasted to this author that he and an American general met in a tent at Baghram airport outside Kabul and reached an agreement on the number of Northern Front forces entering Kabul, thus averting the much feared bloodbath.

Currently, the US must map out two exit strategies, one for Afghanistan and one for Iraq, and in more ways than one the two are interrelated, not the least because in both countries, sharing long, porous borders with Iran, there cannot be durable peace and stability without input from Iran.

Contrary to the prevalent, superficial analyses of today's Iran, the foreign policy of that country toward the "new" Iraq and "new" Afghanistan features all the essential ingredients of good neighborly relations warranting an alternative assessment of the Islamic Republic as "rogue" and/or "axis of evil".

In view of the steady expansion of trade and economic cooperation between Iran and its two neighbors under American occupation, there are ample grounds for perceiving Iran as a regional bastion of stability directly benefiting from the political and geostrategic windfall of the downfall of two hostile regimes in Kabul and Baghdad and their replacement with rather benign alternatives.

Needless to say, on the con side there are new national security worries for Iran generated as a result of the unprecedented Americanization of regional politics over the past few years, and crafting a balance between the positive and negative ramifications of post-September 11, 2001 developments in Iran's vicinity is difficult, given the fluid and at times uncertain nature of the political-security circumstances surrounding Iran.

One thing is for sure. Compared to the 1990s, when the fear of Iraq's nuclearization ran rampant in Iran, especially when Saddam Hussein ceased his cooperation with the United Nations inspection of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, today Iran has virtually no such fear and, hence, can recalibrate its defense strategies and the weapons needs of those strategies.

Equally certain is Iran's disdain for a re-Talibanization of Afghanistan and, similarly, the resurgence of Ba'athism and anything remotely similar to that within Iraq. Consequently, the rising chorus for American withdrawal, affecting the US Congress, cannot but raise new concerns and anxieties inside Iran, irrespective of the official, anti-American ideology that has been somewhat heightened on the rhetorical level by the new president, Mahmud Ahmadinejad. This brings us to a consideration of the nature of Iran's new anti-Americanism, vividly demonstrated by the marching millions across Iran chanting "death to America" recently.

The limits of Iran's new anti-Americanism

Iran's new president has wasted little time in whipping up anti-Americanism in Iran, accusing the US of committing war crimes in his latest speech. Ahmadinejad's comments regarding the US military's extensive use of depleted uranium in Iraq has hit a raw nerve in the American media and, interestingly, the CNN broadcast of his speech carried a little blurb at the bottom that "natural uranium" is more dangerous than depleted uranium.

But, of course, most Iraqis or Afghanis are not in proximity of natural uranium and the reported 210 tons of uranium-contaminated shells that the US military has so far fired in Iraq alone will without the slightest doubt cause serious health risk to the civilian population for a long time to come, particularly in the poor, working-class sections of Baghdad and other towns that have seen the firing might of the US war machine.

However, beyond such disturbing developments, the US's destruction of Saddam's regime and its replacement with a Tehran-friendly, Shi'ite-led political system constitutes, in fact, manna from heaven for Iran, thus laying the groundwork for a fresh start in troubled US-Iran relations.

Curiously, the rise of a militant anti-American president in Iran may actually serve this process for two reasons: (a) Iran is no longer bothered by elite factionalism hampering its diplomacy, and (b) Iran's hardline politicians at the helm mirror to some extent their neo-conservative adversaries in Washington.

This is not to suggest that Iran's new surge of anti-Americanism is a mere ploy for domestic consumption, although there is an element of truth to that and the emotional and ideological basis for reinventing Iran's foreign policy (see Reinventing Iran's Foreign Policy , Asia Times Online, October 7); rather, the complexity of this new anti-Americanism can be best captured by viewing it through different prisms, ie, the ideological-religious, national interests, and regional and international considerations and proclivities of the Iranian system.

On the one hand, Iranian hostility toward American "hegemony" is a legacy of the Islamic revolution of 1979, receiving new shock treatment by the interventionist policies of the White House since September 11, 2001. The US may be actively engaged in selling its image in the Middle East as "Muslim-friendly", but unfortunately the "image repackaging" can only go so far, notwithstanding the facts of a sizeable military presence, say occupation, of two Muslim states, not to mention the powerful presence of the US military throughout the Persian Gulf and the Central Asia region minus Iran.

Hence, the symptoms of anti-Americanism can be found aplenty nowadays not simply among the clerical ruling elites of Iran, but also among a large segment of the population, which may be fascinated by the US superpower, yet at the same time resents its unilateralism and interventionism, as well as its selectiveness regarding democratization or nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. For example, Israeli nuclear arms are tolerated by the US, as is the continued pattern of pre-modern rule in the oil sheikdoms of the Persian Gulf.

Nonetheless, the pitiful excesses of Iran's Americaphobia need mentioning. For one thing, the recent congressional calls for American troop withdrawal from Iraq have unnerved the ruling Iranians, bringing a strong dose of reality into the very midst of their public denunciations of the US. The fact is that a blanket Iranian objection to the US military presence complicates Iran's Iraq policy, which has been geared to sustain the new, Shi'ite-led status quo that is constantly put in grave danger by the Sunni-dominated insurgency.

With certain Iraqi Shi'ites aligning themselves with the US power, which has "liberated" them from decades of Ba'athist oppression, an Iranian ambivalence toward the US military presence in Iraq, as well as Afghanistan, has been manifested at official and semi-official levels. Consequently, a structural limit of Iran's anti-Americanism can be seen here, precisely as a result of fears of Iraq's breakup or descent into the quagmire of inter-religious fratricide favoring the anti-Shi'ite extremist Sunnis in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, overriding the ideological antipathy toward the "Great Satan".

This means that blind, diabolical opposition to the US is not really in Iran's geopolitical interests, at least for the moment, since neither Iran, nor any other regional power, can possibly fill the vacuum of departed American power - power that in any case has been inadvertently serving Iran's interests.

Functional or dysfunctional anti-Americanism?

A question worth pondering is whether the new Iranian anti-Americanism is dysfunctional when analyzed through the prism of Iran's national interests. Is it, in other words, irrational or self-disserving? The answer must consider a conflated and confusing recent history whose momentum, toward increasing or decreasing the risks to Iran's national security interests, is difficult to gauge in the light of contradictory impulses that ran in diametrically opposed directions with respect to the US threats against Iran.

Despite these contradictions, the fact that the American "enemy" has sent to history's dustbin two of Iran's foremost local enemies, replacing them with Iran-friendly substitutes, impinges on any concerted efforts in Iran today to make renewed anti-Americanism a big staple of collective identity.

Consequently, if left unchecked, the virulent anti-American political rhetoric in Iran runs the risk of causing policy rigidities resistant to pragmatic consideration of shared interests with the Western superpower that necessitate a partial overlap in terms of regional politics. Some of today's anti-Americanism in Iran may be inevitable, but the character and intensity of it militates against the logic of detente, given those shared interests between Tehran and Washington.

Certainly, one clear testing ground for breakthrough diplomacy between the two countries is the current negotiation over Iran's nuclear program, given the renewed willingness of Iran to engage in nuclear talks with Washington's European partners.

There is already a soft linkage between the nuclear and the regional security issues, prompted most recently by the exchange of accusations and counteraccusations by Tehran and London (which has taken the lead in questioning Iran's nuclear intentions), and this linkage may grow even more pronounced, depending on the outcome of the nuclear talks.

Doubtless, Washington's and London's willingness to acknowledge Iran's regional clout and its constructive role in regional peace and stability would play a catalytic role in changing the hostile attitudes and stereotypes about the US within the Islamic Republic. With concerns about an anti-Shi'ite resurgence in Iraq at its peak, Iran today can ill afford the side-effects of a dysfunctional anti-Americanism precluding meaningful dialogue between the two countries, especially on the grand topic of America's exit strategy for Iraq.

Iran's place in the US exit strategy

In contemplating an exit strategy, the US government must be able to rely on the stalwart participation by Iran that has hitherto been lacking, at least publicly.

With the uneven evolution of a new Iraqi army and police force plagued by factionalism, desertion and mistrust, not to mention the deleterious effects of the potent insurgency defying the might of the US and its coalition partners, an American withdrawal from Iraq is only possible when the internal forces of the country are relatively capable of maintaining peace and national unification without the benefit of the American military.

To open a caveat here, last year at a Persian Gulf conference on regional security, this author was surprised to hear from more than one Arab expert that in their opinion Iran's "rogue behavior" was meant to stimulate America's continued presence in Iraq to safeguard Shi'ite political gains, the argument being that the "Iran threat" would make it harder for the US to leave.

Whether we are speaking of a few years or several years from now, let's say 2008 or 2010 to 2012, a future US withdrawal from Iraq will most likely not happen overnight but rather through a logical sequence in phases, whereby the phased reduction of troops will eventually culminate in a complete or near complete exit from the Iraqi theater.

That is why it is essential that all of Iraq's neighbors, above all Iran but also Syria, be incorporated within the exit strategy, otherwise the risk of an Iranian spoiler role, partly through its armed influence, such as with Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army in Iraq, may grow larger and larger.

Fortunately, this is a recognized fact by the old hands in Iraq's new political infrastructure, including its Kurdish president, Jalal Talabani, who in his recent visit to Iran exceeded himself in emphasizing Iran's important role in regional stability.

The Iraqi Kurds have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo shaped along federalist lines, and have to reckon with potential Turkish intervention to frustrate their ultimate hope of independence in case of Iraq's breakup, in which case Iran can be an effective counterweight to Turkey.

Meanwhile, all of Iraq's neighbors seem committed to preventing Iraq's splintering into de facto mini-states warring among themselves while breeding Islamist terrorism, which explains Iran's continuous participation in the various gatherings of Iraq's neighbors (plus Egypt).

In the end, the paradox of US-Iran games of strategy, now nearly three decades old, may produce a net result of simultaneous competition and cooperation in Iraq and Afghanistan, tantamount to making Iraq a joint American-Iranian client state.

With several noted politicians, including Ahmad Chalabi, willing to play the compliant helper in this rather odd but ultimately realistic scenario that is dictated less by the political taste of actors involved than by the cold realities on the ground, the Iraqi client state will be for the foreseeable future empowered by two seemingly hostile forces.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and co-authored "Negotiating Iran's Nuclear Populism", The Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume X11, issue 2, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu.

Copyright 2005 Asia Times Online Ltd.

:: Article nr. 18345 sent on 02-dec-2005 03:17 ECT


Link: www.atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/GL02Ak03.html

:: The views expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of this website.

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