Leaving Iraq: The Iran Factor

The most significant hinge on which the American ability to leave Iraq pivots is the state of conditions in that country after our departure. If the result is a descent into a maelstrom of highly visible violent chao, it will be widely seen as an American defeat and will almost certainlt trigger an acrimonious political debate in the U.S. Such a debate would undoubtedly include pillorying those who supported disengagement as unpatriotic and disrespectful of the memories who have fallen, and those accusations would be met with an eqaully srrident outcry that none of this would have happened had the United States not invaded unwisely in the first place. Then the fur flies. It would not be pretty.

This scenario is not played out if the American departure is accompanied by reasonable stability and tranquility that can plausibly be called peace (notice all the qualifying adjectives, the intepretation of which are subjective). It will not matter much whether the cause of peace is because of the U.S. presence (the good we have done) or the American departure (relief the occupation is over) . If the U.S. is “out of there” with reasonable cover, war supporters will feel triumphant, and opponents will be relieved. It is the closest possiIble thing to a win-win outcome.

How does one maximize the prospect of a successful outcome (a peaceful Iraq)? There are, to reiterate, no guarantees. Having said that, one possible way–certainly not the only one–is to avoid destabilizing outside influences. Enter Iran. If the Iranians approve of the outcome and support it, there is at last a chance it will work. If, on the other hand, they oppose the post-war agreement, they can (and may well) commit destabilizing interference that will endanger the peace. Iran is that important to the overall outcome.

Iranian interest in post-occupation Iraq is arguably greater than that of any other regional actor. Iran is the physically largest, most populous and powerful state in the region, and it shares a long land border with Iraq. It is the Persian Gulf region’s pivotal state, meaning its interests cannot be ignored because of its regional importance (the pivotal state concept is discussed in Chapter 4 of my forthcoming fourth edition of Cases in International Relations). Moreover, Iran is already heavily involved in Iraq, providing support for essentially all important Shiite factions, many of whose leaders have lived in exile in Iran at one time or another. Iraq is also important to Iran bcause the holiest shrines of shiism (after those in Saudi Arabia) are in Iraqi cities, notably an-Najaf and Karbala. For all these reasons, a post-occupation Iraq the Iranians cannot accept is likely not to be a very stable place. (One they do approve of also might not be very stable.)

If Iranian cooperation were perceived as important to an American government committed to a peaceful Iraq after the U.S. departs, it would stand to reason that the United States would be actively discussing mutually acceptable outcomes with the Iranians (presumably the Iraqis would also be present). Even if these must be held privately because of publicly expressed U.S. disdain over Iran, clearly getting on board should activate U.S. diplomacy.

The Bush administration, of course, is doing nothing of the sort, at least not as far as the public knows. Why not? The Bush administration does not like Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadenijad, and as is typically the case with Bush, he refuses to talk to someone he dislikes. Only Senator Obama has expressed any willingness to engage in conversations with the Iranian president. At the same time, such attention as there is toward Iran is directed is aimed at their nascent nuclear weapons program and what nasty things the United States will do a) if Iran acquires the weapons, and b) if threaten to or actually use them against Israel. The surrounding rhetoric may play well in Tel Aviv–for instance, “Hillary the Obliterator”, but it hardly resonates in Tehran.

Iranian nuclear weapons prospects are a future prospect that can be dealt with primarily by improving relations between Tehran and Washington (a major reason for the Iranian program is to deter American attacks against them); starting a dialogue over Iran might even help jumpstart that process. Iran’s interest in and acquiescence to a settlement of the Iraq War is here and now. Can the Iran factor be ignored as planning for an acceptable outcome in Iraq proceeds? The Bush administration acts as if Iran does not matter–implicily arguing they will have to accept whatever outcome the U.S. comes up with. Is that a viable assumption that can be translated into a workable strategy? Not if the Iranians have anything to say about it–and they do.

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