Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Iraq, the Nuclear Issue, Aghanistan and the Gulf: The View from Tehran

Selig Harrison, Director of the Asia Program at the Center for International Policy, gave a briefing today at the Woodrow Wilson Center where he is also Senior Scholar. Harrison reported on the view from Tehran based on two trips there in the past nine months, most recently in February. His trips were funded by the Trust for Mutual Understanding. Harrison prefaced his remarks with the fact that he went to Iran with the specific objective to see what is possible in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf. He was not able to meet one-on-one with either President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, but he did meet with many of their key advisors. Most signicanlty, the Iranian Foreign Ministry arranged a meeting with 15 experts that work on Iraq.

Harrison focused most of his remarks on Iran’s view of Iraq beginning with an apropos comment from Mahmoud Vaezi, Deputy of Foreign Policy Research at Center for Strategic Research in Tehran. Vaezi told Harrison, “We have been waiting for this moment since 1639,” meaning that Iran has been waiting for the day when Sunni minority rule would end in Baghdad and Iran would restore its influence.

Harrison said that President Bush clearly did not have the Shi’a connection on his mind when he toppled Sadam Hussein and he pointed to comments by Douglas Feith who has said he believed in 2003 that invading Iraq might speed up the collapse of the Islamic Republic of Iran. According to Feith, “It was unclear to us how it would all net out and it is still unclear.” He thought that Iranians would be inspired by the “Iraqi revolution.” Feith still calls what’s happening in Iraq a revolution. Paul Wolfowitz was more realistic and believed a Shiite dominated Iraq would never be a puppet of Iran.

But what about an Iraq that is closer to Iran than any other external power? The U.S. was slow to learn that the politicians in power in Iraq have had close ties to Iran.

Harrison thinks it’s obvious the U.S. has embarked on a new military strategy in Sadr City. Iran has carefully avoided playing favorites in Iraq, but the U.S. has not. Harrison said he has heard Iranian anger over the U.S. role in Sadr City and said the timing of the escalation in Hizbollah attacks in Lebanon might be linked to the U.S. decision to step up military action against the Mahdi army. Harrison also said the Iranian suspension of a fourth round of talks with the U.S. over Iraqi security is also a result of situation in Sadr City. Many Iranians asked Harrison, “How can the U.S. accuse us of interfering in Iraq?”

The U.S. has to give serious attention to Iran’s view of what must be done in Iraq. There can be no graceful withdrawal from Iraq without Iranian cooperation. Iran wants a stable Iraq, what they define as a “friendly Iraq.” Their effort is to keep a hand in with all actors so they end up with friends in power. Harrison said the importance of Iran-Iraq war can not be overemphasized enough as the basic context for Iran’s view of the situation in Iraq and in context of the nuclear issue.

Iran is ready to cooperate in stabilizing Iraq, but only if U.S. is willing to set a timetable for the gradual withdrawal of U.S. forces in Iraq. In return for stabilizing Iraq, the basic U.S. quid pro quo would be accepting Iran’s right to be a major player in Iraq. Acceptance by Saudi Arabia is also implicit.

Iran has carefully avoided taking sides in current Shiite internal struggle and wants the U.S. to do the same. It has also attempted to keep on good terms with all Shia factions. They do prefer al-Hakim as the preeminent force in the Shi’a community in Iraq, but they are being careful to keep their Revolutionary Guard relationships with Muqtada al-Sadr. Essentially, they are hedging their bets in Iraq. It is important to stop the slaughter in Sadr City because it puts Iran in an awkward position, particularly as it has been restraining Muqtada al-Sadr, so far, something Harrison was repeatedly told. It is pretty clear that the March 2008 truce was brokered by an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp general. A Shiastan in the South is also a very important question.

The safest way to predict what would come out of any Modus Vivendi between the U.S. and Iran over Iraq is when withdrawal is completed. But, according to Harrison, in a Modus Vivendi, Iran would pledge not to give missiles capable of hitting green zone. It would end aid to militias in Iraq when U.S. forces are withdrawn and it would help with eliminating al Qaeda in Iraq. Iranians also focus on security guarantees that U.S. bases in Iraq will not be used to attack Iran. Iran also does not want an independent Kurdistan. For a graceful U.S. withdrawal, Iran expects the U.S. to end aide to Party for a Fee Live in Kurdistan (PJAK) and other groups, in particular separatist groups in Balouchistan.

Two Iranian demands would be particularly difficult to get through U.S. policy process. Iran wants the U.S. to end support for Mujahideen al Khalq (MEK) fighters who have been kept at Camp Ahsraf in Iraq for the last five years. Iran wants the U.S. to put MEK fighters through a Red Cross screening process so they can return to Iran.

Iranians are very angry now about what they see as a shift in U.S. policy since the 2005 Iraqi elections. In their perception, they see the Sunni Awakening as an abandonment of support for a Shiite dominated Iraq that resulted from the 2005 elections. Iran wants the U.S. to stop building up Sunni militias, but it is not going to be easy to roll back the Sunni Awakening. As Steven Simon points out “The Price of the Surge” the U.S. made deals “mediated by tribal leaders and consisted of payments of $360 per month per combatant in exchange for allegiance and cooperation… The total number [of combatants] across Iraq is estimated at over 90,000… The Sunni sheiks, meanwhile, are getting rich from the surge. The United States has budgeted $150 million to pay Sunni tribal groups this year, and the sheiks take as much as 20 percent of every payment to a former insurgent -- which means that commanding 200 fighters can be worth well over a hundred thousand dollars a year for a tribal chief.”

The U.S. has started something that will be difficult to stop. Ending the Sunni Awakening is important to re-establishing stability. As George Packer pointed out in an article for the New Yorker, Sunni awakening policy is seen as indicative of the long-range goals of the U.S. in Iraq.

But, what will happen to the Sunnis? They will have to accept rule by the Shiite majority, just as Shiites had to accept Sunni rule for the last five centuries. President Bush assigned the Sunnis to this status when he overthrew Saddam Hussein.

For this reason, a U.S.-Iran agreement must be accompanied by a broader regional agreement. Iran is ready for a regional approach. The U.S. media has given little attention to Iran’s efforts to work on regional cooperation.

Regarding Iranian views of cooperation over Afghanistan, Harrison said his best meeting was with Alaeddin Boroujerdi, head of Majlis, who like many other Iranians, said that Iran cooperated with the U.S. to defeat the Taliban after the September 11, 2001 attacks. “Our reward was membership in the Axis of Evil,” Boroujerdi said. Harrison said there is a tremendous feeling of unreciprocated overtures in Iran.

Iranians still believe there are areas for serious cooperation with the U.S. over Afghanistan, particularly with halting narcotics trafficking. Iranians dismissed U.S. claims their helping the Taliban and completely are with U.S. in opposing them. Harrison said it is interesting to note that U.S. accusations on this have died down.

Regarding the Gulf, Harrison said the Iranians have a very pragmatic attitude. No one expects the U.S. to completely withdraw militarily from the gulf. But the carriers represent the biggest threat, especially as they are equipped with tactical nuclear weapons. Removal of carriers from the Gulf would be Iran’s first demand.

Harrison said there was a good reception in Iran for the idea of a reduction of U.S. military presence in the Gulf as proposed by Kenneth Pollack from Saban Center at the Brookings Institution. Pollack argues, “The best way for the United States to address the rise of terrorism and the threat of internal instability in Saudi Arabia and the other [Gulf Cooperation Council] states would be to reduce its military presence in the region to the absolute minimum, or even to withdraw entirely.” The Navy could remain in Bahrain, but there must be fewer American warships. Harrison notes the difficulty comes with Iran’s desires for expansion.

Harrison said the U.S. media portrays Iran as trouble-maker in the Gulf. However, since King Abdullah came to power in Saudi Arabia and since Rafsanjani’s haj when he was president, there has been a marked Saudi-Iran bi-polar balance. Saudi-Iranian political tensions can be serious, but that does not mean that Saudi Arabia is willing to engage militarily.

Finally, regarding the nuclear program, Harrison said the U.S. is not serious about a negotiated settlement otherwise it would not be insisting on suspension of uranium enrichment as a precondition. He noted that nuclear negotiations between Iran and the European Union in 2004-05 were based on a bargain that the EU failed to honor. Iran did suspend enrichment efforts for more than half a year. The EU promised to put forward security guarantees and economic incentives, but it could not produce the security guarantees. Many Iranians, including former Iranian Ambassador to the United Nations Javad Zarif, put their reputations on the line to convince the powers in Iran to suspend and the U.S. was unwilling to cooperate on security assurances. All factions in Iran agree that they should not be conned again.

Is a nuclear settlement possible? Harrison argues that given a settlement in Iraq, it would be possible to get a freeze at some point in future negotiations under International Atomic Energy Agency inspections. But reciprocity would be required and the U.S. would have to make a commitment not to use nuclear weapons against Iran. Harrison believes establishing a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone agreement in the Persian Gulf should be part of the settlement. He said no one in Tehran talked about a security agreement extending beyond the Gulf into the Middle East. He said the U.S. could rule out using nuclear weapons in gulf without doing so in the Middle East and this would not hurt its policy on Israel.

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