reflections

The Iraq Question

6 MINS READMay 12, 2010 | 11:22 GMT
ON MAY 11, AN AP REPORT CITED multiple anonymous U.S. military sources stating that the planned American drawdown of combat troops from Iraq had been delayed. Later that same day, a Pentagon spokesman denied the veracity of those claims. In his rebuttal, Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said that of the 94,000 U.S. soldiers currently in Iraq, only 50,000 would remain by the end of August, with the accelerated drawdown set to begin in earnest in June, keeping in line with previous pledges made by U.S. President Barack Obama. Speaking hypothetically, Morrell said that even if the withdrawal timetable had truly been drawn out, it would not have represented a "dramatic development." Despite the Pentagon's official position on the matter, it is undeniable that Iraq has seen a ramp up in violence and political tension of late. This makes it hard to believe that the Obama administration is not wondering just how strong the hand it holds on the Iraq question is these days in relation to the other player at the table: Iran. Make no mistake, however. The United States is leaving Iraq, even if later than the currently scheduled date for total departure, the end of 2011. And while over the long run the United States holds clear advantages over Iran, the question that affects the more immediate future is how much (if at all) the United States will be able to utilize the time it has left in Iraq to ensure that the country will not be politically dominated by Tehran once the United States is gone. Judging from the results of the March 7 parliamentary elections in Iraq, the United States may have a harder time than it had previously hoped in seeing this goal through. It is now clear that the Shia will hold the upper hand over the Sunnis when it comes to dictating the terms of who gets what in the new Iraqi government, which is good news indeed in Tehran. It is not good news in Washington, which now faces the prospect of a Shia-run Baghdad — albeit with a significant Sunni population acting as a natural check — being heavily influenced by its eastern Shiite neighbor. As American foreign policy in the region is heavily centered upon maintaining balances of power (one of which, the Iran-Iraq balance, was shattered as a result of the 2003 U.S. invasion), an emboldened Iran flanking its Iraqi satellite state would represent a setback for the United States. There are options for what the Obama administration may decide to do about the Iraq question, but none of them are very appealing from the United States' point of view. Washington could attempt to renegotiate its Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the Iraqi government and prolong its military occupation of the country past 2011. In this case, it could opt for either a prolonged presence involving a large number of troops (the least preferable option in the United States' eyes), or an extended presence with a smaller number of troops. Both scenarios would generate fierce opposition from Iran and many sectors of Iraqi society, not to mention Obama's constituents at home. Choosing an extended occupation — assuming it got the go ahead for the renegotiation of the SOFA with Baghdad — would see the United States keeping its forces in Iraq and re-evaluating its options as time progresses. There are options for what the Obama administration may decide to do about the Iraq question, but none of them are very appealing from the United States' point of view. If Washington eschews both options, it could, of course, simply accept Iran as the dominant regional power. The United States' geopolitical interests make all of these unattractive choices, however, meaning the United States could seek to alter the equation, in this case through negotiations with Iran. To do this, Washington must be prepared to give Iran credible security guarantees in exchange for a promise from Tehran to allow an independent Iraq at least a modicum of political independence. Iran may hold the better hand at the moment, but the United States is still the global hegemon, meaning that despite being in a pretty good situation these days, the Iranian regime is anything but overly confident. The threat of war or sanctions may have subsided, but Tehran knows that its fortunes could change rapidly. The Iranians know the United States wants to leave Iraq — sooner rather than later — and despite their bellicose rhetoric, are willing to work to accommodate the American aspiration to leave behind a relatively stable country. What Tehran desires more than anything is to guarantee its national security. It hopes it can take advantage of America's momentary weakness to extract concessions, using its potential leverage over Iraq as its prized bargaining chip. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's routine reminders that the only way for Obama to solve his country's problems in the Middle East is to enlist Iranian support serves to highlight this point. Already, there have been vague signs of a possible opening in dialogue between the two countries. While in New York last week, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki hosted a dinner that brought together representatives from United Nations Security Council member states. The United States sent Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations Alejandro Wolff, a low-ranking official, but a representative of the United States government nonetheless. Wolff and Mottaki reportedly discussed the status of four American citizens currently believed to be held in Iran, including former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who has not been seen since 2007. On May 11, Mottaki announced that the mothers of the other three Americans discussed at the dinner — a trio of hikers detained on the Iranian side of the border near Iraqi Kurdistan in July 2009 — would be granted visas to come visit their children. It is exactly these types of gestures, however insignificant they may appear in isolation, that must precede any meaningful dialogue on a topic as momentous as the future of an independent Iraq.

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