May 18, 2005

Vichy's Rebellious Streak!

Is this the behavior of a "Vichy surrogate"? Hosting the foreign minister of a charter axis of evil foe of the American Fuhrer himself? Methinks not.

The arrival of the Iranian, Kamal Kharrazi, underscored changes in the political landscape that many Iraqis find dizzying: almost 25 years after Iraq and Iran started an eight-year war that left a million people dead, the government in Baghdad is now led by officials with close personal, religious and political ties to Iran's ruling Shiite ayatollahs.

Iraqi officials who greeted Mr. Kharrazi acknowledged that the timing of his arrival, so soon after Ms. Rice's 12-hour visit on Sunday, was not chance. "The political message of this visit is very important, notably in its timing," said Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari of Iraq, who at one point broke into fluent Persian, Iran's principal language, during a news conference with Mr. Kharrazi.

For his part, Mr. Kharrazi appeared eager to put the United States on notice that Iran expects to wield influence in Iraq, especially in the long term, that will match or outstrip the United States'. At one point, standing beside Ibrahim al-Jaafari, Iraq's new prime minister, Mr. Kharrazi fielded a reporter's question about the competition for influence in Iraq between Washington and Tehran with a reminder of what he described as the geographical realities.

"Let me add that the party that will leave Iraq is the United States, because it will eventually withdraw," he said in English, referring to the 138,000 American troops here. "But the party that will live with the Iraqis is Iran, because it is a neighbor to Iraq."

And before some commenter yelps on about how we went to war and lost thousands solely to give Iran free rein in Iraq, don't miss this part of Burn's dispatch either:

But Western scholars interviewed by telephone as Mr. Kharrazi began his visit cautioned against seeing the new Iraqi leaders as necessarily pliable in their relations with Iran and against any assumption that Iranian and American interests in Iraq are strongly opposed, at least as long as the Sunni insurgency here continues.

Shaul Bakhash, an Iran scholar at George Mason University in Virginia, said Mr. Kharrazi's visit showed that Iraq's leaders were eager to recognize the importance Iran, with its 800-mile border with Iraq, its trading possibilities and its Shiite faith, will have in Iraq's future.

But he said Iraq's Shiite leaders would not be pawns of the Iranians. "They are Iraqi nationalists, and now that they're in power, they're less dependent on external support than they were as exiled opposition groups," he said.

Other experts said Iran shared the United States' aim of vanquishing the Sunni insurgency in Iraq - a point Mr. Kharrazi alluded to after meeting with Dr. Jaafari, when he said Iran was ready to offer aid to Iraq on matters of security.

Fred Halliday, an international relations scholar at the London School of Economics, said: "Both Iran and the United States want to see Sunni insurrection defeated. Both will suffer if there is civil war in Iraq. The Iranians do not want to see a complete American troop withdrawal now."

I think it was a very good move to have the Iranian Foreign Minister come on the heels of Condi's visit, by the way. It signals to ordinary Iraqis that Iraq will follow her own interests in its foreign policy. And that, of course, involves dealing with its huge neighbor to the East. Another reason? The proximate timing of the two foreign ministers visits symbolizes that Iran and the U.S. do share some interests in common (in Iraq, for instance). Yes, the nuclear crisis continues to brew. But I believe fervent diplomatic efforts are ongoing (particularly with the London-Teheran channel of late)--and that these tightly coordinated high-level visits to Iraq, if only of symbolic value, were nevertheless not coincidental.

Posted by Gregory at May 18, 2005 04:44 AM | TrackBack (54)
Comments

A very profligate optimism, I'm afraid. On both counts.

The mullahs' interest in Iraq is to see the US fail and fail badly, suffering as many losses--in men, materiel, money, and prestige--as possible, while ensuring that Iraq can in no way threaten Iran. And to remind Iraq that while the US may come and go, Iran is right next door and is in a position to either help stabilize or contribute to destabilizing Iraq, depending on the decisions made by the Iraqi government. Threats and extortion are always more effective when made with a smile.

Iran's nuclear interest is to develop a viable and versatile nuclear arsenal with which to defend its policy of fomenting international terror from retribution and to increase Iran's extortive abilities on Europe, the US, and of course Israel, using its nuclear option to threaten Israel directly (already done, with no great public outcry--but then just why ought there be, really?) and to increase international pressure on Israel both generally and for the purpose of giving up the latter's own nuclear deterrent (to which end should not be too difficult to figure out---though it will lauded, by all the usual suspects, as a necessary attempt to make the mideast a nuclear free zone). This in addition, to helping Russia, and China, both contributors to the Iranian nuclear program, exert increased pressure on the US---in the form of an increasingly destabilized world. (Though some of course would applaud the new "balance of power.")

Spin it any way you want.

Posted by: Barry Meislin at May 18, 2005 08:55 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Thanks for this informative summary on Uzbekistan.

(Of course, when someone points out that human rights situation in Iraq was undergoing far greater improvements before the US-Iraq war than you have detailed above with regard to Uzbekistan they were accused of being an "French-loving apologist for Saddam." But somehow, I doubt if you will suffer a similar fate for trying to minimize US involvement with a regime in Uzbekistan that no decent human being would want to have anything to do with.)

Posted by: p.lukasiak at May 18, 2005 09:36 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Barry's is a rather pessimistic view. If by "the mullahs" he means the most zealous Khomeinists among the Iranian clergy he is not too far off in his description of their objectives. But we do ourselves a disservice if we base our thinking about policy toward Iran on the assumption either that the most extreme clergy are the only voices influencing Tehran's conduct or that they will always be as influential as they are now.

Iranian influence on Iraq is not a new thing. Iran under the monarchy was a powerful restraint on Saddam Hussein's ambitions and for that reason a benign influence on the entire region. The Bush administration is, I think, realistic enough to understand that a large country like Iran will always be a factor of some kind in the politics of a smaller neighbor with which it shares a long border and many cultural ties. Where it may be lacking -- and this reflects a failure of intelligence going back many years more than it does an error of policy now -- is in its understanding of which factions in Iran's internal politics want which things in Iraq.

Its problems in this area are likely compounded by the fact that many Iranians aren't clear about this either. At a minimum, an Iraqi insurgency that targets American soldiers and Shiite civilians at the same time must present a real conumdrum to Shiite clerics in Tehran. At the other end of the spectrum is the possibility that if and when the Americans do leave Iraq will plunge into a sectarian civil war that would draw Iran in, putting it at odds with the Sunni Arab states in the region and possibly with Turkey as well.

The United States has more options with respect to Iran that we are apt to think we do. The political position of our worst enemies in Tehran depends in large measure on Iran's isolation, and they cannot keep a country as large as Iran isolated forever. The war that overthrew the Iranians' mortal enemy in Baghdad and opened a vast new field of both opportunity and risk for Iranian foreign policy is part of this equation.

Posted by: JEB at May 18, 2005 04:11 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Barry - is there anything that's not about the US?

I would have characterized Iran's interest in the matter as follows: a stable, legitimate & sovereign Iraq that seeks normalised relations with its neighbours and seeks to end the Baath era hostility that was so damaging to both Iraqis and Iranians. This is pretty much the situation as is. The reality is that there will be a broadening and deepening of relationships between Iran and Iraq on the political, commercial, cultural and personal level and in my view this is a good thing for regional stability and for the prospects for the people who actually live there. I'm sorry if you think it's bad for the US, but that's the genie the US has loosed - and it didn't take a genius to work out that this was bound to happen. Let's face it, it's not all about the US.

I'm sure they ain't shedding too many tears in Teheran over the US's problems in dealing with the insurgency - perhaps you think that the Iraqi govt./US military should invite the Iranian armed forces in to lend a hand? What other meaningful contributions could the Iranians make to assisting Iraqi stability? If anything, the Iranians seem to have worked very hard to keep the peaceful democratic political momentum going in the areas of Iraq where it has influence. Let's face it - the areas where the Iranians have on-the-ground influence are the most peaceful areas (it may also have something to do with the fact that US forces don't operate there and thus don't have the opportunity to alienate even more Iraqis). Frankly I think that you're playing the blame game to excuse the US's inability to mangage the political process and guarantee security in their sectors. Lay the blame where it belongs with Bush, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz etc rather than trying to duck the responsibility and lay it someone else's door.

No-one in their right mind would suggest that we should return to the era of Franco-German hostility in Europe, yet you seem to think that the natural posture of the new Iraq should be to replicate US ( and Baath-era ) hostility to Iran.

Your characterization of Iran's policy as one of fomenting international terrorism is at best a caricature. Iran's policies seem to be founded on 2 basic tenets: the preservation of Iran's territorial integrity and the preservation of its sovereignty. They gave up on exporting the revolution a long time ago and seem to be content to support what they would see as the legitimate rights of Palestinians and Lebanese to resist unwanted occupations.

Insofar as Iran may be developing/has developed a nuclear deterrent, it seems to be just that - a deterrent - to 2 hostile powers who have repeatedly attacked it, threatened it, aided and abetted those who have attacked it, and interfered with its internal political processes. The extortion comes from without, not within. As an aside, Iran doesn't actually require a nuclear option to threaten Israel. If it has the missile capacity it is reported to possess then it can easily hit Dimona and that's enough to cause a real existential problem for Israel.

The US's ongoing headaches are a result of its confused Iran policy and they are not going to end until they get with the programme and sit down and talk at both principal and head-of-state level. This is the best solution. It will also help in the further stabilization of Iraq as it would open the way for some serious tripartite or multilateral cooperation on the ground - why, for example shouldn't the Iranians connect up parts of Souther Iraq to their grid to assist in overcoming the chronic power supply problems in Iraq?

Posted by: dan at May 18, 2005 04:18 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I think a point is being missed. It is Irans interests to have American troops tied up anywhere, to preclude their use in Iran.

Also, how far can America go in "managing" the political process in Iraq, before charges of the Iraqi government being the puppet of America are brought to bear.

The Iraqis have to learn how to manage THEIR political process. We can only guide them so far in doing that, as we've yet to learn how to perfectly manage our own political process.

Posted by: Keith, Indy at May 18, 2005 05:46 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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