Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, said he is "doubtful" that an agreement between Washington and Baghdad authorizing U.S. forces to remain in Iraq beyond 2008 would survive a vote in the Iraqi government, the Washington Post reported Oct. 30. Barzani made the comments while in Washington, where he met with U.S. President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and top congressional leaders Oct. 29. Before arriving in Washington, Barzani was in Tehran for several days, where he met with the senior Iranian leadership. It comes as little surprise that Barzani arrived in Washington with doubts about the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) after visiting Iran. The Iranians are doing everything they can to scuttle the deal and drive U.S. forces out of the region as soon as possible. Meanwhile, as Barzani put it, "intellectual terrorism" has taken its toll in Baghdad, with Iraqi politicians split between needing to work out an agreement with the United States, and wanting to look like fierce defenders of Iraq's sovereignty ahead of provincial polls in January 2009.
The focus of the SOFA is to authorize U.S. forces to stay in Iraq past the end of 2008, when a U.N. mandate expires. On a strategic level, keeping U.S. forces in Iraq for the long term acts as a counterbalance to Iran and satisfies the interests of the surrounding U.S.-allied Arab states that are threatened by Iran's spread of Shiite influence in the Arab world. In diplomacy, the art of commitment involves convincing your opponent that you are prepared to defend your interests when provoked. By staying in Iraq, the United States is signaling to Iran that any major moves to control Baghdad's actions or even threaten Saudi oil fields will be met with a swift U.S. response. Of course, this strategy becomes a lot more complicated when the United States is forced to split hairs over an agreement on how long it is authorized to stay in Iraq — hence the need for ambiguity. Washington's biggest priority right now is to ensure that there are enough caveats in the SOFA's text to deprive the Iranians of any confidence that the United States will be withdrawing in a couple of years and leaving the door open for Iran to swoop in and consolidate Shiite influence in Baghdad. According to the current text, Article 25 of the SOFA says the United States will withdraw from Iraq no later than Dec. 31, 2011. The agreement also states that by June 30, 2009, U.S. forces will withdraw from the cities, towns and villages as soon as Iraqi forces take over security responsibility. But here comes the tricky part. The agreement goes on to say that the U.S. troops that withdraw by June 30, 2009, will "regroup" in installations and areas outside the cities, towns and villages. (Basically, this is a nice way of saying that U.S. forces will withdraw to military bases away from the main population centers.) However, this withdrawal will depend on how much progress has been made regarding security. Either side, according to the SOFA, is allowed to ask for an extension or reduction in the time periods specified in the agreement for the withdrawal. Before Dec. 31, 2011, the Iraqi government is permitted to ask the U.S. government to keep forces in the country for training and support of the Iraqi military. If this request is made, a new agreement will have to be negotiated, or the Iraqi government could ask for an extension to the 2011 deadline. Essentially, there are enough carefully worded caveats in the SOFA for the United States to watch how the situation in Iraq unfolds while keeping Iran on its toes. The United States will sustain a military force in Iraq that it deems sufficient to retain a decisive role in the region and consolidate the gains it has made in stabilizing Iraq over the past two years. From Washington's point of view, the 2011 withdrawal date is not decisive; a lot can change between now and then, and Washington will maintain some flexibility in deciding when and how it leaves. Now try telling that to the Iraqis, who are completely divided over implementing this agreement. To sum up:
- The Kurds are the most strongly in favor of the SOFA. The level of autonomy the Kurds currently enjoy is the best they have had in history. With Iran salivating at the prospect of a U.S. withdrawal and Turkey bearing down on the Kurds from the north, the Kurds want and need an insurance policy for their semi-autonomous region in the form of a long-term U.S. military presence in Iraq.
- The Sunnis are in a more complicated spot. On one hand, they see the danger of having the U.S. withdraw, leaving the door open for Iran. Through the development of the Sunni Awakening Councils, the United States has created the conditions for Sunni reintegration into the Iraqi military and political apparatus. As long as the United States stays in Iraq, the Sunnis' interests — and those of Saudi Arabia and other surrounding Sunni regimes — are guaranteed. At the same time, the Sunnis cannot afford to be seen as selling out to the "occupying forces." The hullabaloo over the SOFA talks is as much political theater as anything else, and the more statements Iraqi politicians can make on preserving Iraq's national sovereignty, the more popular support they can build for their own election campaigns for the upcoming provincial polls.
- The Shia are the source of trouble. Iran is the actor most threatened by this U.S.-Iraqi bilateral pact. If the United States has a firm date for withdrawal, the Iranians can bide their time over the next three years, likely counting on Russia and the situation in Afghanistan to keep the United States preoccupied while Tehran prepares to fill the power vacuum in Iraq by manipulating Shiite alliances, building competing militias and strengthening economic ties. If, however, the United States retains the option to keep a long-term presence in Iraq, the Iranians have to recalculate their next steps quickly and figure out how to reach an accommodation with Washington that would still allow them to consolidate a fair amount of influence in Iraq.
The Iranians have a number of allies in Baghdad that they are using to block the SOFA, but they can only go so far. The Iraqi Shia themselves are divided over how to approach the agreement; some who are closely tied to Iran vehemently oppose the SOFA, while others are taking a far more accommodating stance. For example, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, arguably the most influential Shiite figure in Iraq, said in his typically ambiguous way that he would accept the treaty "as long as it did not violate Iraq's sovereignty." This was the skillful politician's way of telling everyone what they wanted to hear, while leaving them scratching their heads as to what he really meant. The majority of Iraqi politicians are currently terrified that this security pact will become an albatross around their necks. Their main priority right now is to stall, at least until a new U.S administration comes in, so they can get some more solid political and security guarantees from Washington. These politicians also want to survive the January 2009 provincial elections in Iraq without having to answer to allegations that they have sold out Iraq to "U.S. occupiers." Thus, a whole new set of amendments to the SOFA was introduced over the past week to slow the process down. Iran is expressly pushing for most of these amendments, which include an explicit ban on the United States launching attacks on neighbors' soil from Iraqi territory, and a demand for a hardened deadline (i.e., no caveats) for the 2011 withdrawal. The Iranians were greatly unnerved by the Oct. 26 U.S. raid in Syria and are trying to negotiate their own security guarantees with Washington through the SOFA. These amendments are not points that give the United States much wiggle room. The geopolitical reality is that Washington needs to maintain a blocking force against Iran, at least for the short to medium term. Appropriate caveats and meticulous wording will be needed to give the United States the credibility it needs to influence Iranian behavior. But no Iraqi politician is going to let the SOFA budge until the next U.S. administration takes office — and maybe not even until provincial elections take place. As chaotic as the SOFA negotiations have been until this point, they are only going to get messier.