Nicola Nasser: Iraq and the

By Nicola Nasser
Special to

Converging U.S. – Iran interests in Iraq are creating a common ground for an “Iranian option” for President George W. Bush that could be developed into an historical foreign policy breakthrough of the kind he has been yearning for in the Arab – Israeli conflict or India; however several factors are ruling out this window of opportunity, including his militarization of the U.S. foreign policy, obsession with the “regime changes” overseas, his insistence on exploiting to the maximum his country’s emergence as the only world power in the aftermath of the collapse of the former Soviet Union (USSR), an Iranian independent regional agenda that so far cold not be reconciled with his own, and a detrimental Arab feeling of insecurity of such a potentiality.

A potential “Iran option” for Bush, whether it emerges out of a diplomatic engagement or a military confrontation, be it on Iraq or on Iran per se, would embroil Arabs adversely and directly because both protagonists are waging their political as well as military battles on Arab land and skilfully using Arab wealth, oil, space, diplomacy and even Arab proxies to settle their scores towards either political engagement or military showdown.

True it is still premature to conclude that the prerogatives for a U.S. – Iranian regional understanding is about to emerge, or that the Arab feeling of insecurity would seriously jeopardize the friendships or alliances Washington has forged with the majority of the Arab regimes over decades of a love and hate relations, but the burgeoning U.S. – Iranian dialogue over Iraq and the convergence of bilateral interests as well as their complementary roles there during the last four years are flashing red lights, especially in neighbouring Arab capitals.

The first and second rounds of US – Iran dialogue in Baghdad in May and July this year should not perceive “dialogue” as the goal per se, but should be viewed as a diplomatic tactic within the context of a US strategy that either aims at playing Iran, in the same way Washington has been playing Israel, as a menacing threat against the Arabs to blackmail them into falling in line with the US Middle East strategy or, if a regime change in Tehran proves unaffordable, to revitalize the US-Iranian joint policing of the Gulf, but in this case on a partnership basis instead of the Iranian subordinate role during the Shah era, which boils down to serving the same US strategy vis-à-vis the Arabs in general and the oil rich Arab countries in the Gulf in particular.

On July 29, Robin Wright reported in The Washington Post that Bush was sending this week his secretaries of state and defence, Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates, to the Middle East with a “simple” message to Arab regimes: “Support Iraq as a buffer against Iran or face living under Tehran’s growing shadow … The United States has now taken on the role traditionally played by Iraq as the regional counterweight to Iran.” Both secretaries were scheduled to meet with the Saudi Arabian monarch King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz in Jeddah on Tuesday.

Wright was aware however that, “On Iraq, Rice and Gates will have a hard sell,” particularly with Saudi Arabia, whose leader King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz raised a short – lived media tit-for-tat with the Bush Administration when he called in March this year the U.S. presence in Iraq an “illegal foreign occupation.” Wright quoted Kenneth Katzman of the Congressional Research Service as saying: “Iranophobia will not be enough to get the Saudis to back Iraq,” as they think that the U.S. – backed Iraqi government of Nouri Kamal al-Maliki is helping Iran – backed groups.

Arab and Saudi “taking aback” has less to do with backing the U.S. in Iraq or against Iran, as this backing was never a in doubt or question since the invasion in 2003, and much to do with the realistic prospects of an imminent U.S. military redeployment in Iraq that could leave the country dominantly in the hands of pro – Iran sectarian militias and parties, thus inevitably setting the stage there for either an escalating civil sectarian strife or worse for disintegration of the Iraq territorial integrity into sectarian and ethnic political entities fighting over oil and “borders,” with menacing regional repercussions.

Al-Maliki’s government is not helping to dispel this “Iranophobia.” On July 24, U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, Patrick Cockburn, quoted the Iraqi Foreign Minister, Hoshyar Zebari, in British The Independent, as saying that like it or not, “Iran is a player in Iraq” and should be engaged in dialogue. No similar statement bestowed on Arab neighbours a parallel role; may be these neighbours should qualify more, Iran – style, to be “players” there.

Ahead of both secretaries’ visit Washington unveiled what they perceive as an encouraging “banana,” a major $20 billion arms package for Saudi Arabia and other GCC oil – rich states with an eye to countering an “Iranian threat,” in the latest manifestation of an old U.S. blackmailing ploy to scare them into keeping the U.S. defence industries busy and recycling whatever surplus of petrodollars these states have amassed from the soaring of crude oil prices following the invasion of Iraq.

Arabs could not but compare this paid for “banana” with the U.S. tax payers’ $30 billion the Bush Administration has pledged as “aid” for her Israeli strategic regional ally, a pledge confirmed days ago by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert who added that Bush also pledged to him to sustain Israel’s dominant “quality” edge militarily over Arabs combined or individual states.

Both the late Ayatullah Khumeini – led Iran and the late Saddam Hussein – led Baath regime in Iraq were skilfully exploited by Washington as the scarecrows to blackmail GCC countries into buying more weapons and spending their surplus petrodollars. However the Iranian – Iraqi war (1980 – 1988) had turned Iraq into the regional counterweight to Iran, a role Washington insists now on assuming with Iraqi blood and oil, but denying the Iraqis even a contribution thereto. Iraq’s ambassador to the United States on July 25 launched a withering attack on the US administration’s reluctance to provide basic weaponry to his country’s U.S. – led and trained ill-equipped armed forces; Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman acknowledged “it is clear that there is still much to be done with respect to equipping the security forces” of Iraq, in another indication the U.S. is planning not to extricate herself militarily from her Iraqi debacle yet.

Arab Options Between Worse and Worst

The “banana” followed on record U.S. expressions of frustration with their insufficient backing to Bush’s war on Iraq: “Saudi Arabia and a number of other countries are not doing all they can to help us in Iraq. (Washington.) would expect and want them to help us on this strategic issue more than they are doing,” said Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, on Sunday. However, Washington is offering the Arabs a choice between two adverse options between a worse and a worst as an alternative to the current bad war – fraught status quo. Similarly Saudi Arabia is “frustrated by the United States but is at a loss what to do about it,” said Rob Malley, Middle East director of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.

The convergence of US and Iranian plans for Iraq and their complementary roles there during the past four years are not the right precedents to allay Arab fears. The prospect of a potential bilateral US-Iranian understanding on policing Iraq, if Arabs are to be left out of such an arrangement, is perceived by them as a prelude to a similar regional co-ordination that would renovate the US-Iranian policing of the Gulf in the 1950s – 1970s.

Multiple channels of communication were recently opened between Washington and Tehran. The US- installed government(s) in Baghdad since the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was the indirect channel. The gatherings of Iraq’s neighbouring states, which both Iranian and U.S. officials attend alongside non-neighbours like Egypt, opened another semi-direct channel. The U.S. – Iranian meetings at the ambassadorial level in Baghdad were the first public direct channel since 1979. Realpolitics suggests a fourth covert channel as also always a possibility.

Officially Tehran still demands that the U.S. withdraws from Iraq, but on the ground Tehran was the first country and is still the most vehemently supportive nation of the U.S. – sponsored “political process” and the U.S. – installed regime in Baghdad. Ironically Tehran’s demand to end the US occupation of Iraq does not necessarily entail the logical conclusion of an Iranian support for the Iraqi resistance to this occupation; her demand instead to support the regime that was created in Baghdad by this same occupation reveals a contradictory Iranian approach to both the U.S. occupation and Iraq.

For Arabs the two rounds of U.S. – Iran dialogue in Baghdad were a bad omen, regardless of the conflicting reports on the “success” or “failure of the dialogue, which created a distrusting public perception that Arabs could be squeezed between a pressuring US demand to fall in line with the creation of an anti-Iran bloc and the pressing prospect of an emerging US-Iranian bilateral regional arrangements, a position which offers them a choice between two bad options: Either to be relegated to their past minor roles or get embroiled in a conflict that in no way could serve their interests.

On the one hand they are being asked to forego their conflict with Israel and coexist with her 40-year military occupation of Arab lands and instead spearhead the US-led anti Iran efforts; on the other they feel betrayed by being left out to play the role of mere onlookers and not the role of equal partners to the budding US-Iranian dialogue, which they have been long advising in their earnest search for ways to avoid a fourth Gulf war in less than thirty years that could devastate them for a long time to come. They have been seeking to defuse a war-fraught US-Iranian confrontation and see no interest whatsoever in a new military outbreak in their region and accordingly they have sought US-Iranian dialogue, but not to be left out of it.

During the Shah of Iran era, the GCC countries were only “minor” partners to both their strategic relationship with the United States and to the US-Iranian joint policing of the region. That subordinate minor security role is no more feasible or acceptable, at least because such a role does not correspond to their oil, financial and vital logistical inputs in past, current and potential future regional security arrangements. In the end they are the major indigenous demographic component and the major geopolitical asset of any perceived security plans as well as the major contributors thereto and the main losers thereof. If they cannot be the masters they should at least be equal partners. To be assigned their past minor role will serve neither their interests nor those of other partners to regional security.

The Arabs of the volatile region are and have always been realistic enough to accommodate the legitimate interests of both protagonists, who have been nonetheless the main encroachers on both each other interests and those of the Arabs and are still the major sources of instability and insecurity in the region who also never hesitated to foment regional conflicts into wars.

Does it need any documentation the now well – known fact that Iran more than welcomed and was the major beneficiary of the embroilment of her Arab and American adversaries in the Kuwait war in 1990-91 and in the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, or that Washington was counting on this Iranian stance to secure Tehran’s collusion, at least by default or by courting her courted sectarian Iraqi militias and parties who flocked into Iraq with or in the footsteps of the invading tanks and troops, when the Bush Administration planned her invasion?

The U.S. – Iran convergence of interests in Iraq in the context of a prevailing military brinkmanship sustained by Washington is empowering Tehran with a win – win position that could tilt against her only if an outright war breaks out, and both antagonists are unmercifully exploiting their “Arab cards” to improve their no-win positions. The Gates and Rice’s visit comes in this context; so are Tehran’s latest official statement that the UAE’s three Iran – occupied islands of Abu Mousa, Little Tunb and Big Tunb are not negotiable and her semi-official statement that the independent Kingdom of Bahrain is part of Iran, a statement which Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki refused to apologise for, saying in Manama it was a personal point of view that doesn’t reflect an official policy.

GCC Arabs in particular who do not trust Iran could not but interpret such statements as meant per se; others in good faith interpret them as playing an Arab card in political manoeuvring aimed at warning pro – U.S. Arabs to help fend off U.S. military adventures against Iran, otherwise a military confrontation could lead Tehran to making good on her statements. “The Enterprise” was the third U.S. aircraft carrier of the Fifth Fleet sent to the Gulf recently, where the number of US war ships has never been so large since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait are hosts of U.S. military commands that Iran would target in any fighting flare up.

Case for U.S. ‘China Opening’ to Iran

GCC countries could not afford a fourth regional war. Washington has so far failed to “change” the Iranian regime and several internal and international factors make any such change by force, Iraqi style, improbable. Neither could she replace Iran as the eastern neighbour of Arabs nor is Tehran able to dislodge the U.S. from her entrenched and strategically held bases on the Arab side of the Gulf. Both Arabs and Iranians also could not ignore or forego their geopolitical and historical interaction, cemented by Islam and humanitarian and inter-marriage inseparable links where large Arab and Iranian minorities live on both sides of the Gulf coasts, nor could they do away with their huge mutual trade interests where, for example the UAE tops Iran’s trade partners.

The only alternative left for the three protagonists is to engage each other on the basis of, “if you can’t beat them, join them.” Iran is on record as calling for a regional security arrangement with Arabs, but short of any U.S. role. The U.S. is ruling out any change to her dominant security role in the region, let alone allowing in any role for the Islamic regime. But the GCC Arabs are more open to partnerships based on international law and mutual interests. Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Feisal, has recently surprised many, particularly in Washington, by proposing a joint Iran-Gulf Cooperation Council consortium to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes; his Iranian counterpart Mottaki responded favourably.

Engaging Iran was recommended by the James Baker – Lee Hamilton bipartisan Iraq Study Group; the Bush administration rejected the idea, until it has become unavoidable by the dictates of the facts on the ground in Iraq, but approached it tactically with the dialogue at ambassadorial level in the Iraqi capital. However, “The price of anything that could remotely be called a victory in Iraq at this point, or at least not a defeat, is negotiating with Iran. And that means being willing to give Iran some of what it wants from us, including, for example, assurance that we’re not going to shock and awe Iranians if they simply don’t do as they’re told, … Iran is unlikely to do much to help the U.S. in Iraq without receiving something significant — both in terms of its economy and its security — in return,” Hooman Majd wrote in the Salon online on July 16. But Majd missed the fact that Iran already got her “price” in Iraq and the fact that Bush still does not subscribe to his strategic approach.

Nonetheless, this is the strategy advocated by a wide and influential U.S. spectrum of politicians, not least among them the bipartisan Iraq Study Group and the Democrats. Noam Chomsky, in his new book INTERVENTIONS published by City Lights Books in July 2007, had this to say: “In the energy-rich Middle East, only two countries have failed to subordinate themselves to Washington’s basic demands: Iran and Syria. Accordingly both are enemies, Iran by far the more important.” However, “Despite the saber-rattling, it is, I suspect, unlikely that the Bush administration will attack Iran,” because the world, seventy-five percent of Americans and “the U.S. military and intelligence community is also opposed to an attack,” Chomsky concluded.

Would this lead to, “A ‘China Opening’ to Iran?” Asked Jeremi suri, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the author of “Henry Kissinger and the American Century,” in the Boston Globe on July 24. In July 1971, Kissinger, acting as President Nixon’s special representative, secretly travelled to Beijing for a dramatic opening in relations between the United States and China – two nations estranged from one another for more than 20 years. “Today, the historical parallels are striking,” Suri said.

Bush confronts a war in Iraq with no end in sight, American standing abroad has plummeted and domestic opposition to present policies is growing. Iran, similarly, contends with a clash of generations and worldviews at home, as well as a cast of external challengers, including the International Atomic Energy Agency and the UN Security Council. Leaders in Washington and Tehran need one another. The White House should pursue a “China opening with Iran,” wrote Suri.

Iran is more than open to such an “opening.” It is no more a secret that Iran is ready to trade her Iraqi privileged status quo and her regional political influence for a détente with the West, with the U.S. in the forefront, as her greatest prize that would secure the Western recognition of her Islamic regime as a fait accompli.

The seriousness of Washington’s “saber-rattling” vis-à-vis Iran was not questioned only by Chomsky, but her pursuing a regime change in Tehran was in spotlight since the ceasefire in the Iran – Iraq war in 1988. “It was the USA” who “stopped the war, and … stopped Saddam (Hussein) from recapturing parts of Iran” and “not the wisdom” of the Iranian leaders, according to Bahman Aghai Diba, a member of the preparatory committee of the UN Security Council Resolution 598 in the Iranian Foreign Ministry, who wrote in the Persian Journal on July 29:

“Iraqi regime had accepted the Resolution 598 of the UNSC almost one year before the date that Islamic republic of Iran accepted it… At that time, the Iranian forces were well entrenched inside the Iraqi territory… The Iraqi regime, under the pressures of war, was asking all international figures and organizations to help end the war and get the Iranian forces out of Iraq… Almost one month before acceptance of the Resolution 598 by Iran, the Iraqi forces captured Fav and later they pushed Iranian forces back to Iranian territory… In the middle of this chaos, the MKOs [Mujahedin Khalgh Organization) staged an attack in the most irregular and bizarre way. Some of the advanced units of the MKOs that were consisted of lightly armed and poorly trained boys and girls simply riding family sedan cars reached as close as Qom, south of Tehran. The regime was feeling the collapse. Iran decided to stop the war immediately.”

U.S. – Iran Dialogue

Short of political survival prospects, both besieged governments of Bush in Washington and al-Maliki in Baghdad have desperately hanged on to the option of a dialogue with a forthcoming Iran, but a fruitful conclusion of the dialogue, which ended its seven – hour second round in Baghdad on July 24, will depend on whose terms an agreement or an understanding would be reached.

Cornered between a time limit set by an assessment report on the status of the war raging in Iraq on September 15 and the political prerogatives of engaging Iran over Iraq, the Bush Administration has decided, ostensibly responding positively to an Iraqi request, to hold a second session of a dialogue with Iran at an ambassadorial level as a last resort to win more time for both Bush’s Iraq new security plan and for al-Maliki’s government to meet Bush’s “benchmarks” by September.

The first round of the bilateral ambassadorial talks in Baghdad on May 28 recorded the first public bilateral budding dialogue since 1979 and broke the 27-year diplomatic freeze between what Tehran condemns as the “Great Satan” and Washington rules out as a “Rogue state” and “pillar of the axis of evil.” It put the Arabs on their guard; they and their Iraqi brethren were left out of the meeting in the aftermath of which a fierce debate raged inside the Bush administration over taking “military action” against Iran “before George Bush leaves office in 18 months,” according to the Guardian on July 16, but the second round of talks vindicated a report by the New York Times on June 15 that the advocates of diplomatic engagement led by Secretary Rice “appear to be winning [the debate] so far.”

Desperately clinging to the “Iranian option,” the Bush Administration was even ready to forego the fate of four Iranian-Americans held by Tehran. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack confirmed the detainees were not on the agenda of the second Baghdad talks because “the meetings in Baghdad are only about Iraq.”

Similarly al-Maliki’s government has bet all on the resumption of the U.S. – Iran dialogue. Iraqi president Jalal Talabani late in June visited Tehran in a bid to convince Iran’s top leaders resume dialogue with the U.S.; on June 27 he thanked Iran for acceptance of the Iraqi bid.

Iran in turn was “unconditionally” forthcoming, ostensibly also responding positively to an Iraqi request: “Iraqi officials have made the request,” Foreign Minister Mottaki told IRNA after a meeting with Talabani. Iraq’s ambassador to Iran, Mohamed Majid al-Sheikh, thanked the Iranian officials on July 3 “for not setting any precondition for a second round of talks with the U.S.”

The trilateral U.S.-Iranian-Iraqi committee of “experts” they agreed to set up on July 24 to coordinate their “security” efforts in Iraq was a step toward discussing what ambassador Ryan Crocker said were “ways forward,” during what Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebar said would be the “the next round of talks … on a higher level.” Mottaki, revealing a receptive attitude, declared his country’s willingness to discuss higher level talks, but Washington nixed such a prospect for the time being: “I don’t see that happening at this point of time,” said Sean McCormack.

The Baghdad talks came on the backdrop of a revised U.S. military plan, known as the Joint Campaign Plan and developed by the top U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, and the U.S. ambassador in Iraq, Crocker, which envisions American troops being in Iraq for at least another two years to secure a “nationwide security by mid-2009,” after which permanent U.S. bases would safeguard the emerging status quo, according to the Voice of America on July 24, citing a The New York Times report.

In making the case for a continued U.S. troop presence, Bush argues that al-Qaeda or Iran would take over Iraq after a “precipitous withdrawal” of U.S. forces; he reinforces his arguments with the conclusions reached in recent “war games” exercises conducted for the U.S. military by retired Marine Col. Gary Anderson, which were cited by the Washington Post on July 17: “If U.S. combat forces withdraw from Iraq in the near future, three developments would be likely to unfold. Majority Shiites would drive Sunnis out of ethnically mixed areas west to Anbar province. Southern Iraq would erupt in civil war between Shiite groups. And the Kurdish north would solidify its borders and invite a U.S. troop presence there. In short, Iraq would effectively become three separate nations.” Iran cites similar warnings, adding that the withdrawal of the Iranian “influence” would bring in a system more threatening to neighbours than the Saddam Hussein – led Baath regime.

Their agreement on the common denominators of identifying the enemy as “terrorism” and identifying the goal as the stability of the regime they both installed in Baghdad and recognized as the legitimate representative of the Iraqi people is most likely theoretically to produce agreement on cooperation to beat the common enemy and secure stability for their converging interests. Al-Maliki opened the trilateral meeting with a statement focusing on the common denominator, “terrorism,” and called on “everyone” to stand beside Iraq “to counter the scourge of terror and extremism,” he said, referring to anti-occupation national resistance more than to the actual terrorism of the Iran – supported militias and squabbling political parties who are the backbone of his government and the US-dominated “political process.”

The prospect of a potential bilateral US-Iranian understanding on policing Iraq is perceived by Arabs as a prelude to a similar regional co-ordination that would renovate the US-Iranian policing of the Gulf. On June 30 the Asia Times reported that Mohammad Javad Larijani, the brother of Ali Larijani, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator and head of the powerful Supreme National Security Council, called to expand those talks to broader issues such as Afghanistan, “Persian Gulf” security, and the tensions in the Middle East: “We should not negotiate only about Iraq,” he said.

Accordingly, when the two major foreign powers responsible for the destruction of the Iraqi state and the sectarian disintegration of the Iraqi society meet and say they are determined to stay in the country to restore it to “stability,” they leave no room for guessing that their complementary roles during the past four years have started to diverge and they are now merely trying to sort things out in order to avoid reaching a point of conflict that could jeopardize their war spoils in the occupied country.

Both Americans and Iranians played down the significance of their Baghdad “dialogue.” Former US ambassador to Syria and senior policy adviser to the Iraq Study Group, Edward Djerejian, had told AP that Arabs, “all have their own ongoing relationship and dialogue with Iran. So I can’t see where they can really question the US entering dialogue with Iran, and they really should embrace it.”

True the future of Iraq as well as the current situation in the wretched war-torn country were the focus of the US and Iranian diplomats in the Iraqi capital, but the dialogue was not confined to that and the regional roles of both sides were also on the agenda. Moreover, the Iraqis themselves are more concern to Arabs than to any other self-proclaimed concerned parties, at least because Iraqis in their majority are compatriot Arabs and because Iraq is also a founding member of the League of Arab States. Ruling them out of any future arrangements for Iraq and the region would surely antagonize them to figure out where their strategic interests lie.

-Nicola Nasser is a veteran Arab journalist in Kuwait, Jordan, UAE and Palestine. He is based in Birzeit, West Bank of the Israeli – occupied territories.

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