Iran shadow over US-Iraq security pact

Posted in Iraq , Iran , United States | 10-Jun-08 | Author: Kaveh L Afrasiabi

Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki (front R) shakes hands with Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at an official meeting in Tehran June 8, 2008.

Amid a rising chorus of internal opposition to a proposed long-term United States-Iraq security agreement, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki visited Tehran at the weekend to address Iran's concerns about the matter and, simultaneously, to improve the security and military component of Iran-Iraq relations. This is bound to further complicate the US's effort to nail this agreement before the end of the year, when the United Nations mandate for the presence of "coalition forces" in Iraq runs out.

Already, US ambassador to Baghdad Ryan Crocker has accused Tehran of throwing a monkey wrench into the sensitive US-Iraq security discussions by trying to "complicate" them, as if the denunciation of the said accord by the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and numerous other leading Iraqi clergy and politicians, both Sunni and Shi'ites, has not already rendered it nearly impossible to realize.

Iraqi Defense Minister General Abdulghadir Jasim al-Abidi, accompanying Maliki, has met his Iranian counterpart, Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najar, who has informed the Iranian press that the two ministers have reached an agreement on enhancing Iran-Iraq defense cooperation in such areas as "border security, land and sea delimitation signs, mine sweeping, defense, educational and logistic cooperation in various fields".

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, on the other hand, in his meeting with Maliki, stated that "neighbors, friends and the United Nations should assist Iraq with the establishment of stability and security".

Clearly, Iran has strong misgivings about the hitherto confidential US-Iraq security deal that, although its main outlines covering political, economic and security cooperation, were signed by Maliki and President George W Bush last November, is still being negotiated and has become a hot topic of controversy in Iraq and the region.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zibari has told the US media that Baghdad has a problem with the accord in the sections dealing with Iraq's sovereignty, and other Iraqi officials and lawmakers have focused in particular on the issues of "extraterritoriality" that would place American soldiers and contractors working in Iraq beyond the pale of the Iraqi judicial system. There is also concern over the US's request for "long-term bases" and the duration of the security agreement, with some Iraqis hinting the accord seeks a "ninety-nine-year agreement".

In light of the tense US-Iran relations, Tehran is adamantly opposed to any long-term US presence across the border, especially when there are unconfirmed reports that the US has specifically requested the right to use its bases in Iraq against hostile forces in the region beyond Iraq's borders.

This, in turn, explains Tehran's interest in seeing that the agreement is modified to include a pledge from the US that it would not to attack Iran from its bases inside Iraq. There are, in other words, both positive and negative sides to an agreement between Washington and Baghdad as far as Tehran is concerned, although at present there is muted debate in Iran as to which side has the upper hand.

With the issue of "institutionalization of the present political structure in Iraq" being top priority for Iran, to paraphrase an article by a former deputy foreign minister, Mahmoud Vaezi, Iran is deeply concerned about Iraq being steered toward the Arab bloc headed by Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The trick, however, is how to balance the long-term goal of dissociation of Baghdad from the net of US dependency against the realities of Baghdad's need for military protection.

According to Vaezi, "The principal US approach during the past five years in Iraq has been unilateralism, monopolism and avoiding the participation of other regional and extra-regional players." But, is the US ready to adopt a new approach now, that is, to parcel out the Iraqi security "pie" and, in tandem with the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, invite neighboring countries such as Iran and Syria officially into the Iraq "security game"? (The Iraq Study Group, a 10-person bipartisan panel appointed by the US Congress, issued a wide-ranging report on December 6, 2006.)

Iran is not likely to be included in the near future, but this does not mean the US will corner itself into a non-bargaining posture; much depends on who takes over the White House come next January - Democrat Barack Obama or Republican John McCain.

Meanwhile, with the Bush administration reportedly pressing to finalize the security agreement some time this summer, Iran's nuanced reaction is geared to coordinate with the broad religious and political coalition being formed in Iraq in opposition to the security agreement, while at the same time not going to the extreme of letting rhetoric supplant cold geopolitical considerations. Baghdad, to paraphrase Iran's National Security Chief Saeed Jalili in his meeting with Maliki, needs to "rely on popular support".

What this boils down to is that Iran, in exchange for closer security and military connections with Iraq, would tolerate more robust Iraq-US security relations with clearly defined specifications on the status of forces.

From the vantage point of Iran's national security, Iraq's security and regional security are closely connected and it is unrealistic for the US (and Israel) to constantly threaten and undermine Iran's national security while expecting steady and uninterrupted improvement in US-controlled Iraq, as if these are two separate issues.

Linked to this is Iran's concern that the growing controversy over the US-Iraq security agreement may damage the legitimacy of Maliki's government and thus undermine the current political process to the advantage of the Sunni bloc led by Saudi Arabia. Therefore, Tehran has not overlooked how potentially debilitating this thorny issue could turn out to be for the Tehran-friendly regime now in power in Iraq.

An effective solution is transparency and a parliamentary seal of approval on any agreement between Baghdad and Washington, as called for by the Iraqi constitution, Article 58, Section 4, and demanded by Sistani and a host of other leading Iraqi clergy.

Although necessary, this may not be sufficient, recalling how Japan's similar experience with the US - over ratification of the 1960 Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security - instigated serious political crisis in that country.

Learning from Japan and other experiences, such as South Korea, Iraqi politicians are in a position to initiate restrictions on the free and unconstrained movement of the US military, for example by emulating the Japan-US agreement's specifications on the areas designated for US military facilities, usage and on the administration of local employees used by those facilities.

For now, the Iranians are banking that the US's objective of garnering a long-term security pact from Baghdad is not politically feasible and that the US will likely settle for a more modest request. This could involve the extension of the UN mandate for another year to allow more time to negotiate the complex and multi-faceted issues regarding the Iraqi security calculus and their ramifications beyond Iraq's borders.

Certainly, as long as the US's policy toward Iran remains predominantly hostile and wedded to a discourse of a "new cold war", there are structural limits to the horizon of the possible in terms of US-Iran cooperation on Iraq, and this alone raises the issue of a "new US approach toward Iran", as called for by some US politicians and pundits.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and co-author of "Negotiating Iran's Nuclear Populism", Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume XII, Issue 2, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu. He also wrote "Keeping Iran's nuclear potential latent", Harvard International Review, and is author of Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction.