Sunday, October 07, 2007

Bush's gift of victory to Iran’s hardmen

Peter Galbraith

In his continuing recently warned of the Iranian threat should America withdraw. effort to bolster support for the Iraq war, President George Bush
“For all those who ask whether the fight in Iraq is worth it, imagine an Iraq where militia groups backed by Iran control large parts of the country,” Bush said.
On the same day in the city of Karbala, south of Baghdad, the Mahdi Army, a militia loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shi’ite cleric, battled American-backed government security forces that are dominated by the Badr organisation – a militia founded, trained, armed and financed by Iran. How did this paradox come about?
When US forces ousted Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, the Badr organisation infiltrated the south from Iran. In the months that followed, the US-run Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) appointed Badr leaders to key positions in Iraq’s army and police.
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At the same time the CPA appointed party officials from the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) to be governors and serve on governorate councils throughout southern Iraq. SCIRI was founded at Ayatollah Khomeini’s direction in Tehran in 1982. Badr is the militia associated with it.

In the January 2005 elections, SCIRI became the most important component of Iraq’s ruling Shi’ite coalition. In exchange for not taking the prime minister’s slot, it won the right to name key ministers, including the minister of the interior. From that ministry, SCIRI placed Badr militiamen throughout Iraq’s national police.
In short, Bush has from the first facilitated the very event that he warned would be a disastrous consequence of a US withdrawal from Iraq: the takeover of a large part of the country by an Iranian-backed militia.

The United States cannot now undo Bush’s strategic gift to Iran. But, importantly, the most pro-Iranian Shi’ite political party is the one least hostile to the United States.

In the battle now under way between SCIRI (recently renamed the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, or SIIC) and al-Sadr for control of southern Iraq and of the central government in Baghdad, the United States and Iran are on the same side.
The United States has good reason to worry about Iran’s activities in Iraq. But, contrary to the Bush administration’s allegations, Iran does not oppose Iraq’s new political order. In fact, it is the chief beneficiary of the US-induced changes in Iraq since 2003.

Of all the unintended consequences of the Iraq war, Iran’s strategic victory is the most far-reaching, as the history of the region illustrates.
In establishing the border between the Ottoman empire and the Persian empire in 1639, the Treaty of Qasr-i Shirin demarcated the boundary between Sunni-ruled lands and Shi’ite-ruled lands. For eight years of brutal warfare with Iraq in the 1980s, Iran tried to breach that line but could not. The Reagan administration supported Saddam precisely because it feared the consequences of an Iraq dominated by Iran’s allies.
The 2003 US invasion of Iraq accomplished what Khomeini’s army could not. Today, Shi’ite-controlled lands extend to the borders of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Iran and its Iraqi allies control the Middle East’s third and second largest oil reserves. Iran’s influence now extends to the borders of the Saudi province that holds the world’s largest oil reserves.

In the past five years Bush has articulated two main US goals for Iran: replacing Iran’s theocratic regime with a liberal democracy and preventing Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. He has added a third objective: gaining Iranian cooperation in Iraq.
America’s track record is not impressive. When Bush first proclaimed his intention to keep nuclear weapons out of Iranian hands, Iran had no means of making fissile material. Since then it has assembled and used the centrifuges needed to enrich uranium. To coerce it into ceasing its enrichment programme, the administration has relied on United Nations sanctions, the efforts of a European negotiating team and stern presidential warnings. The mismanaged Iraq war has undercut all these efforts.
With so much of the US military tied up in Iraq, the Iranians do not believe that America has the resources to attack them and then deal with the consequences. They know that a US attack would have little support in America and none internationally. Not even the British would go along. So Bush’s warnings count for little with Tehran. As long as the Iranians believe the United States has no military option, they have limited incentives to reach an agreement, especially with the Europeans.

Halting Iran’s nuclear programme is also incompatible with Bush’s other long-term objective: changing its regime. Iran is highly unlikely to agree to a nuclear solution while America is trying to overthrow its government. Furthermore, airstrikes might destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities but they would rally popular support for the regime and give it a further pretext to crack down on the opposition. The rest of the world would condemn the attacks and there would likely be a virulent antiUS reaction in the Islamic world. In retaliation, Iran could wreak havoc by withholding oil from the global market and by closing the Gulf shipping lanes.

Faced with choosing between the United States or an Iran under attack, Iraq’s government may not choose its liberator. Even if the Iraqi government did not openly cooperate with the Iranians, pro-Iranian elements in the US-armed military and police would almost certainly facilitate attacks on US troops by pro-Iranian Iraqi militia or Iranian infiltrators.

Unless he chooses to act with reckless disregard for the safety of US troops in Iraq, Bush has effectively denied himself a military option for dealing with the Iranian nuclear programme. A diplomatic solution to the crisis created by the programme is clearly preferable but not necessarily achievable.

Broadly speaking, states want nuclear weapons for security and prestige. Iran sees the United States as the main threat to its security. US military forces surround Iran – in Afghani-stan, Iraq, central Asia and the Gulf. Bush and his top aides repeatedly express solidarity with the Iranian people against their government while the US finances programmes aimed at the government’s removal.
The US and international press are full of speculation that Dick Cheney, the vice-president, wants Bush to attack Iran before his term ends. From an Iranian perspective, all this smoke could indicate a fire.

Four years ago there was enough common ground for a deal. In May 2003 the Iranian authorities sent a proposal through the Swiss ambassador in Tehran for negotiations on a package deal in which Iran would freeze its nuclear programme in exchange for an end to US hostility.

The Iranian paper offered “full transparency for security that there are no Iranian endeavours to develop or possess WMD [and] full cooperation with the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] based on Iranian adoption of all relevant instruments.”

The Iranians also offered support for “the establishment of democratic institutions and a nonreligious government” in Iraq; full cooperation against terrorists (including “above all, Al-Qaeda”); and an end to material support to Palestinian groups such as Hamas. In return, they asked that their country not be on the terrorism list or designated part of the “axis of evil”; that all sanctions end; that America support Iran’s claims for reparations for the Iran–Iraq war as part of the overall settlement of the Iraqi debt; that they have access to peaceful nuclear technology; and that America pursue antiIranian terrorists.
Basking in the glory of “mission accomplished” in Iraq, the Bush administration dismissed the Iranian offer.

When this abrupt rejection of the Iranian offer began to look blatantly foolish, the administration moved to suppress the story. Flynt Leverett, who had handled Iran in 2003 for the US National Security Council, tried to write about it in The New York Times and found his article crudely censored by the NSC, which had to clear it.
Four years later, Iran holds a much stronger hand while the mismanagement of the Iraq occupation has made the United States’ position incom-parably weaker.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has made uranium enrichment the centrepiece of his administration and the embodiment of Iranian nationalism. Even though he does not make decisions about Iran’s nuclear programme (and his finger would never be on the button if Iran had a bomb), he has made it politically difficult for the clerics who really run Iran to come back to the 2003 paper.

Nonetheless, the paper could provide a starting point for a US–Iran deal. In recent years, various ideas have emerged that could accommodate both Iran’s insistence on its right to nuclear technology and the international community’s desire for ironclad assurances that Iran will not divert the technology into weapons.

These include a Russian proposal that Iran enrich uranium on Russian territory and also an idea floated by US and Iranian experts to have a European consortium conduct the enrichment in Iran under international supervision. Iran rejected the Russian proposal, but if hostility between Iran and the United States were to be reduced, it might be revived.

While there are good reasons to doubt Iranian statements that its programme is entirely peaceful, Iran remains a party to the nuclear nonproliferation treaty and its leaders, including Ahmadinejad, insist that it has no intention of developing nuclear weapons. As long as this is the case, Iran could make a deal to limit its nuclear programme without losing face.

From the inception of Iran’s nuclear programme, prestige and the desire for recognition have been motivating factors. Iranians want the world, and especially the United States, to see Iran as they do themselves – as a populous, powerful and responsible country that is heir to a great empire and home to a 2,500-year-old civilisation. In Iranian eyes, the United States has behaved in a way that continually diminishes their country.

Many Iranians still seethe over the US involvement in the 1953 coup that overthrew the elected government and reinstated the Shah. Being designated a terrorist state and part of an “axis of evil” grates on Iranians in the same way.
A diplomatic overture towards Iran might include ways to show respect for Iranian civilisation (which is different from approval of its leaders) and could include an open apology for the US role in the 1953 coup which, as it turned out, was a horrible mistake for US interests.

While Bush insists that time is not on America’s side, the process of negotiation – and even an interim agreement – might provide time for more moderate Iranians to assert themselves.

So far as Iran’s security is concerned, possession of nuclear weapons is more a liability than an asset. Iran’s size – and the certainty of strong resistance – is sufficient deterrent to any US invasion. Developing nuclear weapons would provide Iran with no additional deterrent to a US invasion but could invite an attack.
Should Al-Qaeda or another terrorist organisation succeed in detonating a nuclear weapon in a US city, any US president would look to the country that supplied the weapon as a place to retaliate. If the origin of the bomb were unknown, a nuclear Iran – a designated state sponsor of terrorism – would find itself a likely target, even though it is extremely unlikely to supply such a weapon to Al-Qaeda, a Sunni fundamentalist organisation.

With its allies largely running the government in Baghdad, Iran does not need a nuclear weapon to deter a hostile Iraq. An Iranian bomb, however, would probably cause Saudi Arabia to acquire nuclear weapons, thus cancelling Iran’s considerable manpower advantage over its Gulf rival.

More pragmatic leaders such as Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president, may understand this. Rafsanjani, who lost the 2005 presidential elections to Ahmadinejad, is making a comeback, defeating a hard-liner to become chairman of Iran’s Assembly of Experts, which appoints and can dismiss the supreme leader.

At this stage, neither the United States nor Iran seems willing to talk directly about bilateral issues apart from Iraq. Even if the two sides did talk, there is no guarantee that an agreement could be reached. And if an agreement were reached, it would certainly be short of what America might want. But the test of a US–Iran negotiation is not how it measures up against an ideal arrangement but how it measures up against the alternatives of bombing or doing nothing.

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