Geopolitical Diary: Levantine War Rumors and the Iraq Situation
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day.
Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider
what might happen tomorrow.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry announced on Monday that it has received an official request from the U.S. administration (via the Swiss Embassy in Tehran) for a fourth round of talks on Iraqi security. This announcement comes just days after Mohsen al-Hakim, son of the head of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, also cited a request for talks from Washington –- an old Iranian game of making it appear as though the United States is the one desperate for talks. Through it all, Washington has remained quiet, but notably has not denied the statements. (All this occurred the day before U.S. Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker will testify before Congress on the progress in Iraq.) Meanwhile, Muqtada al-Sadr also suggested on Monday that he would be willing to disband the Mehdi Army militia if asked to do so by Shiite clerical authorities. This is despite — not because of — an Iraqi military operation in Basra that by most accounts was poorly planned and poorly executed. Not only is the firebrand offering an almost unbelievably enormous concession, but because his militia largely held its ground in Basra against the Iraqi security forces, it is almost as if his concession has been stage-managed — most likely by the Iranians. Bringing al-Sadr into the fold of the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government will help reduce infighting among the Shia, thus strengthening Tehran's hand in the country's affairs even as it reduces Iran's ability to orchestrate militia violence. Washington knows it must accept some degree of Iranian influence to reach an accommodation with Tehran over Iraq. But a potential arrestor is lurking in the Levant. Tensions are on the rise between Israel, Syria and Lebanese militant organization Hezbollah. Israel is hosting the largest civil defense exercise in its history, both Israeli and Syrian reserves reportedly have mobilized, and there are rumblings about an impending reprisal attack for the killing of top Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyah. Concerns across the region continue to mount that Israel is looking for an excuse to step into another conflict with Hezbollah, this time with more decisive results. Such a conflict cuts both ways for the United States, and has a direct bearing on the situation in Iraq. On the one hand, Israeli military intervention in southern Lebanon would very likely seriously destabilize U.S. efforts in Iraq. Iran is unlikely to sit by and allow its militant proxy, an important tool of Iranian influence in the region, to confront a reinvigorated Israel Defense Forces without support or protest. From the U.S. perspective, Iraq is of fundamental importance — the Levant is not. Washington is not about to sacrifice the gains of the last year in Iraq to allow Israel to take another shot at Hezbollah. On the other hand, in the course of its history the Jewish state repeatedly has reminded Washington that it is not simply a U.S. puppet by acting unilaterally (often subsequently receiving grudging American support). Should Washington begin to see Israeli military action as unpreventable, it could attempt to trade concessions in Iraq for guarantees Iran would remain on the sidelines of the Israeli conflict, sacrificing some points in Iraq to allow Israel the chance to strip Tehran of Hezbollah, one of the Iranians' key proxies. This is a tempting goal, but one fraught with risk should the Iraq negotiations take a more definitive turn for the worse. We saw further potential signs of progress in U.S. negotiations with Iran over Iraq on Monday. At the same time, we are continuing to monitor signs of potential war in the Levant. Though their proximate causes are distinct, should both trends continue apace, their inextricable linkage will become all too clear.