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The Iran-Iraq Nexus and US Foreign Policy

May 15, 2008

Washington D.C. – Five years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq and over 4000 American deaths later — and an imprecise number of Iraqi victims — a consensus has yet to be reached in Washington on how to move forward. Among the three candidates running for the White House (John McCain, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton), the two democrats have promised a relatively quick withdrawal of the troops, although they seem committed to slightly different timetables, with Obama showing the greatest urgency. John McCain instead remains a strong supporter of prolonged U.S. presence in Iraq and of the surge, the increase in the number of American soldiers on the ground that was enacted by President George W. Bush in 2007 and of which the Senator of Arizona had been a proponent.

One thread runs through these two seemingly opposing approaches; Americans, both Republicans and Democrats, show a tendency to treat the War in Iraq as merely a matter of US domestic politics, failing to grasp, or at least underestimating, the level of engagement of other important actors and their efforts at influencing the outcomes of the conflict to their advantages. Among such actors, Iran is certainly the most prominent.

This, at least, is the picture that emerged from a conference held on May 14th at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, a research center in Washington D.C. Following two recent visits to Teheran, Selig Harrison, Director for the Center of International Policy, a non-governmental organization based in the national capital, was invited to speak on the triangular relation between the U.S., Iran and Iraq and to help gauge the view from Teheran. “I don’t think there can be an orderly withdrawal of our troops and a successful post-war reconstruction, without the help of Iran,” Mr. Harrison said. According to the Director of the CIP, Iran should not be viewed exclusively as a threat to the stability of the Middle-East, but could turn out to be a precious ally in the resolution of the conflict in Iraq, at the condition that Washington was willing to engage seriously with Teheran.

Geographic and historical reasons explain Iran’s interest in Iraq. The two countries share a 900-mile border, they both comprise a Shiite Muslim majority and they have entertained bilateral dealings for millennia. “For five centuries,” Mr. Harrison explained at the Wilson Center, “Iran has waited for the moment when the Sunni minority rule in Baghdad would end and when Teheran could finally regain some of its influence.” When, in 2003, the United States decided to overthrow Saddam Hussein, the neighboring Islamic Republic experienced conflicting feelings. On one hand, Teheran was worried about the presence of U.S. troops at its borders. On the other hand, the Iranian government quickly recognized the opportunity to seize control and influence.

Five years later, there is little doubt that Iran has acquired increased leverage on the Iraqis and that many of the progresses achieved – the latest one of which is the cease-fire agreed upon by the government of Nouri al-Maliki and the anti-American militias of Muqtada al Sadr – have been made possible thanks to Teheran’s intervention.

It appears that the U.S. might be growing increasingly dependent on Iran for a positive resolution to the conflict in Iraq. Fortunately, Washington and Teheran have a common interest in maintaining order and stability and that Iraq remains a unified country. Teheran is particularly worried about the Kurdish separatist movement, which they fear could inspire an uprising of Iran’s Kurdish minority. Moreover, according to Mr. Harrison, Iran has shown strong signals of a willingness to cooperate with the Americans. “Iran is restraining al Sadr and is ready to help stabilize Iraq, but only if Washington sets a timetable for a withdrawal of US troops and accepts Iran’s right to be a major player in post-war Iraq,” Mr. Harrison said.

In short, Iraq could become the stage for a new era of cooperation between the United States and Iran. At the same time, if Americans choose not to change course, it cold also turn into yet another proxy war and the theater of a violent confrontation between the two countries.

Whatever choices will be made by Teheran and Washington in Iraq, they will reverberate throughout the region. According to Selig Harrison, “Teheran’s frustration over American behavior in Sadr City (a neighborhood in Baghdad populated by 2 million people that has been the scene of the latest violent uprisings and of the brutal response by the U.S. Army), could have partially caused the most recent developments in Lebanon,” suggested the Director of CIP Wednesday morning, referring to the reigniting of the struggles between the Iran-sponsored Hezbollah and the U.S.-backed government in Beirut.

Vice versa, an American opening toward Iran in Iraq could mark the beginning of new diplomatic relations, which could then possibly extend to covering the nuclear issue. So far, Mr. Harrison believes, “the U.S is not serious about a negotiated settlement, or it would not be asking for the suspension of all enrichment as a pre-condition to negotiations.” Selig Harrison is convinced that it will be possible, at some point in the future, to obtain a complete freeze of Iran’s nuclear program under the oversight of the International Atomic Energy Agency; “the U.S. however will have to make a formal commitment to never use nuclear weapons in the Gulf.”

Selig Harrison laid out on Wednesday the reasons why Washington should re-evaluate its approach toward Teheran. Among the presidential hopefuls, Barack Obama is the only one to have said that he is, at least theoretically, willing to talk to Iran. John McCain is determined to stay the course initiated by George W. Bush. Hillary Clinton has repeated several times that she does not foresee meeting Iranian President Ahmadinejad, and that negotiations at the presidential level will not happen unless the Iranian government implements serious reforms. Considering where the 2008 campaign is now, it is likely that Barack Obama will be battling John McCain for the White House. If this is the case, the outcome of the general elections will certainly carry direct implications for American foreign policy, particularly as far as Iran and Iraq.

Originally reported and written for Washington Prism

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