Iraq takes a turn towards Tehran
DAMASCUS - A popular Iraqi joke speaks of an aged man who marries a young girl many years his junior, called Mana. Whenever he visits his young bride, she complains that his long beard has become too white, and plucks out its white hair. The next day, he visits his first wife Hana, who is his age, and she complains that the remaining black hairs do not compliment him, plucking them out as well. He eventually ends up with no beard, and miserably speaks to himself in front of the mirror saying, "Between Hana and Mana, I lost my beard!"
The moral of the story - which rhymes in Arabic - is that men cannot please all tastes, nor two wives. Iraqis today are using the story in reference to their Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who is torn between appeasing the United States, which brought him to power and kept him there despite all odds, since 2006, and pleasing his patrons and co-religionaries in Tehran.
The Americans tell him to sign a long-term agreement between with the US, maintaining 50 permanent American military bases in Iraq. The Iranians angrily order him not to, claiming this would be a direct security threat to the region as a whole, and Iran in particular. The Americans reportedly are pressing to finalize the deal by July 30, 2008, upset that no progress has been made since talks started in February. Iran has carried out a massive public relations campaign against the deal, calling on all Shi'ites in Iraq to drown it.
Traditional foes like Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, chairman of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, and Muqtada al-Sadr, a leading Shi'ite cleric, have gone into high gear in recent weeks, pressuring Maliki not to sign. Hakim, who enjoys excellent relations with Washington, cannot stand up to his patrons Tehran - or defy his Shi'ite constituency - and say yes to such an agreement, which Iran considers a pretext for long-term US occupation of Iraq.
The first to come out and speak violently against the agreement was the Qum-based Ayatollah Kazem al-Hairi, a very influential cleric in Iraqi domestics, matched only by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. He issued a religious decree - a fatwa - prohibiting ratification of such an agreement long before similar declarations were made in Najaf.
Despite all talk of tension between the Sadrists and Iran, Muqtada echoed the statement, staging massive weekly demonstrations against the agreement. In addition to the 50 US bases, the deal calls for long-term American supervision of the Iraqi Ministry of Interior and Defense (no less than 10 years). It gives the Americans almost exclusive right to rebuild Iraq, train Iraqi forces and maintain personnel on Iraqi territory - with immunity from the Iraqi courts.
It gives the US the right to arrest or persecute any Iraqi working against its interests, within Iraq, and pledges to protect Iraq from any war, coup or revolution. It also gives the US control of Iraqi airspace. Barhan Saleh, the deputy prime minister, said that the Americans threatened to freeze no less than US$50 billion worth of Iraqi hard currency, and keep all of Iraq's monetary debts to the US, if an agreement is not signed before December (the date that the United Nations mandate for the American presence in Iraq expires).
Saleh commented, "Our American allies need to understand and realize that this agreement must be respectful of Iraqi sovereignty. We need them here for a while longer, and they know they have to remain here for a while."
After a visit to Tehran this month, Maliki at the weekend made his position clear - surprising the Americans - saying, "Iraq has another option that it may use. The Iraqi government, if it wants, has the right to demand that the UN terminate the presence of international forces on Iraqi sovereign soil."
He added, "When we got to demands made by the American side we found that they greatly infringe on the sovereignty of Iraq and this is something we can never accept. We reached a clear disagreement. But I can assure you that all Iraqis would reject an agreement that violates Iraqi sovereignty in any way."
These bold words were given under direct orders from the Supreme Leader of Iran, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, during Maliki's latest visit to Tehran. The second draft, put forward by the Americans, changes some of the basic points, giving Iraq the right to prosecute American officers, soldiers and private contractors who violate Iraqi law, and requires the Americans to turn over any Iraqi arrested, to be tried by an Iraqi court.
Maliki's refusal, according to officials at the US Embassy in Iraq, was to the first draft, insisting that the idea was still being debated by lawmakers from both countries. One Iraqi lawmaker was quoted - questioning Maliki's big words, "If tomorrow the Americans decide to leave, I want to caution against overconfidence. It is still very precarious and we don't have the capabilities to defend ourselves."
What got into the prime minister? A sudden bolt of Iraqi nationalism? Or a stream of orders from Tehran - whose leaders are worried about increased talk of a US attack before January 2009? An Iraq chained to the US administration in post-George W Bush America could come in handy, after all, for any military adventure against Tehran.
The Iranian leaders have been watching three developments in the region with interest, all of which took place over the past week. One was the increased talk in Israel of the need to bomb Iran because of its nuclear program, made on Friday by Deputy Prime Minister Shaoul Mofaz. The Israeli minister - who has his eyes set on winning elections and becoming prime minister if or when Ehud Olmert gets ejected, noted that sanctions were not enough, saying that Israel must bomb Iran, with the United States. Analysts saw this as a prelude, coming after the latest Bush-Olmert summit, for Bush's final adventure in the Persian Gulf.
Second was the debate in Iraq on whether or not to sign the agreement with the US. Third was the "coup" by Democratic senator and presidential hopeful Barack Obama, in his highly controversial speech before the influential lobby the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which changed all perception in the Third World that he would be the president to talk to - rather than bomb - the Iranians.
Iran fears these three developments. Shortly after Mofaz made his remarks, Iranian Defense Minister Mustapha Mohammad Najjar snapped back, "Iran's armed forces have reached a pinnacle of their military might and if anyone is to take such measures, the response will be excruciating."
Bush echoed these threats in a meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, repeating traditional jargon that Iran is a threat to world peace. Then from Germany, he added that "all options are on the table" for dealing with Iran.
According to certain press reports, the Israeli government has set up a military command in preparation for an attack on Iran, called the Iran Command. "The command's operations are aimed at improving coordination among Israeli ballistic missiles and air and missile brigades which deploy the Arrow and Patriot missile systems."
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki downplayed this news, saying, "We don't think there is any chance of a military strike," claiming Mofaz's remarks were "not serious". These worlds do not refute those of Mofaz and have sent shockwaves throughout Tehran.
With regard to Obama's speech, Olmert described it as "very moving", much to the displeasure of the mullahs of Tehran. Among other things, Obama said that Jerusalem will remain the "united" and "eternal" capital of Israel. He then added that if elected, "I will bring to the White House an unshakeable commitment to Israel's security. The bond between the United States and Israel is unbreakable today, unbreakable tomorrow and unbreakable for ever."
Obama added, "The Iranian regime supports violent extremists and challenges us across the region. It pursues a nuclear capability that could spark a dangerous arms race, and raises the prospect of a transfer of nuclear know-how to terrorists. Its president denies the Holocaust and threatens to wipe Israel off the map. The danger from Iran is grave, it is real, and my goal will be to eliminate this threat."
These are ample reasons for the Iranian leaders to exert maximum pressure on Maliki, to change course, or leave office and make room for a Shi'ite statesman who can defend Iranian interests. Shi'ite leaders of Iraq - regardless of their differences - have been asked to unite by Khamenei, to kill the proposed US-Iraqi treaty.
Maliki was bluntly told to turn it down - or else. In as much as the Americans think they can press a button and get Maliki to respond affirmatively, reality is very different. They can eject him of course, but given these circumstances, it would be difficult to find any serious or credible Shi'ite statesman from within the United Iraqi Alliance willing to defy Iran, for the sake of America.
Mofaz's statements and those of Obama do not make life any easier for Maliki. There are six more months of George W Bush at the White House. He still has the power to bomb Iran.
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.