Friday, November 17, 2006

You and I, Collapsed in Love

I'm not sure why, exactly, Kevin Drum thinks it's bizarre that Iran would prefer that the US maintain a troop presence in Iraq. To be fair, it is peculiar to see US and Iranian objectives aligning in such a fashion, but once you get past this initial mini-shock, the mutual appeal of such a policy is quite predictable.

If there's one regime that has benefited most by our invasion of Iraq, after all, it is Iran. Their empowerment and influence in the region have increased dramatically via the annihilation of their most meddlesome nemesis and next door neighbor - Saddam Hussein. Adding to their blessings, Saddam's perpetually hostile Baath regime was replaced by a relatively compliant/friendly Shiite-led government.

Beyond issues of Shiite ascendancy stemming from the toppling of Saddam, our continued presence in Iraq is appealing to Iran for three major reasons: First, from a logistical perspective, our continued military commitment in Iraq limits our ability to pursue similar regime-changing adventurism in Iran itself (in addition to giving Iran a geographically convenient and target rich theater for retaliation should the US seek to pursue military airstrikes against Iran).

Second, the longer the US bleeds in Iraq - both money and lives - the more discredited the Bush doctrine becomes and the less likely it is that Bush (or any successor) will be able to muster the will of the American populace for another such endeavor (again, in Iran).

Third, and this one is likely a more recent development than the preceding two, Iran is legitimately concerned that the current levels of instability and chaos in Iraq would only get worse should the US pull out. This would threaten the gains made by Iran in having a stable, Shiite controlled-Iraq, and could lead to a broader regional Shiite/Sunni confrontation (this, by the way, is the worst possible outcome among the endless parade of horribles).

So you get statements like this one cited by Drum:

On Tuesday night, Tehran's English-language news channel featured commentary from political scientist Pirouz Mojtahedzadeh, who called for the U.S. to remain in Iraq until it has established a strong, stable central government capable of providing adequate security.

And this from an article appearing on Eurasianet:

Iran is working quietly but feverishly to prevent the total collapse of order in Baghdad and the hasty departure of US forces. Some policy experts in Tehran say a full-blown civil war in Iraq would constitute a “catastrophic development” for Iranian geopolitical interests. [...]

From Iran’s standpoint, Iraq’s current situation represents a two-pronged challenge: one, Iranian officials are eager to prevent a widening of sectarian violence between Shi’a and Sunni Muslims; and, two, Tehran does not want to see a precipitous departure of US troops in Iraq.

As recently as September, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told a visiting Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki that the “unwanted guests [US troops] must leave the region as soon as possible.” But as Iraq careens toward civil war, Iranian officials, along with the leaders of other Middle Eastern states, seem to have publicly softened their rhetoric concerning the US military presence.

“Iranian leaders are as terrified of a hasty US departure as everyone else in the area. They just pretend otherwise,” said a political scientist in Tehran who spoke on condition of anonymity.

In that respect, perhaps I'm being unfair to Drum. The shift in "official" (or acceptable) rhetoric emanating from Iran is noteworthy. This is compelling evidence that Iran is growing nervous about its own ability to corral the djinni back into the bottle (again, our tracks are parallel). In light of this, Iran is giving every indication that it would be willing to negotiate (and more importantly coordinate) with the US on certain issues of stabilization. This presents an opportunity to better the situation in Iraq.

Don't get me wrong, I'm as dubious and skeptical as the most hardened cynics about the likelihood that the Baker-Hamilton commission (ISG) will play the role of deus ex machina in Iraq. Not gonna happen. The most likely outcome will be political cover for the Bush administration (or its successor?) to eventually admit defeat and withdraw - perhaps after the much talked about "surge" of 20,000 troops that appears imminent.

But if the ISG could at least succeed in making the case that negotiating with Syria and Iran is a must, and the Bush administration could somehow break with its pattern and take this good advice, then there is room for some gains to be made.

I'm not talking "ponies", but a cooperative Iran and Syria could help to rein in some of the violence and mayhem. Even if they just halt the downward spiral of attack and retaliation, I would consider that an accomplishment. When you're drowning, the ability to tread water should not be undervalued. Especially if the swimmer (the Bush administration in the present case) has every intention of staying in the drink. This is made particularly crucial if the drowning victim has the potential to drag down so many others into the whirlpool.

The pessimists argue that Iran's ability to intervene in a productive manner at this point might be limited. As evidence, some point to the fact that the Mahdi army itself has begun to splinter as more radical, violent factions break away because Sadr is increasingly viewed as overly docile and conciliatory. The formation of these groups has led to two lines of speculation:

Nibras Kazimi claims that Iran is creating/funding those splinter groups because Iran wants to further its influence over the Mahdi militia, and perhaps proceed with efforts at sowing chaos where Sadr himself might not want to go. Others are suggesting that the splinter groups are an indication that Iran, and Sadr to some extent, have lost control of their respective constituencies.

It's hard to say which is correct, but in some ways it doesn't matter. Engaging Iran, and ensuring their cooperation, would help under either scenario. If evil mastermind Iran is behind the radical splinter groups, they could simply compel those groups to back off if we strike an acceptable deal. If Iran is not behind the radical break away factions, Iran could still use its influence with its more loyal proxies (SCIRI and Sadr even) to marginalize and neutralize the rogue groups - with our help of course. It would be in the interest of Sadr to consolidate control, SCIRI to neutralize rival, loose cannon factions and the US to take out such troublemakers.

In that limited sense, a troop surge could have some positive effect if certain preconditions were met. If such a surge were prefaced by a cooperative framework forged with Iran and Syria, as well as fruitful negotiations with certain Sunni insurgent groups amenable to power sharing arrangements, our influx of troops could be useful in terms of fighting back the insurgent/militia groups that aren't playing ball. I acknowledge the rather significant hurdles represented by the "ifs" in that paragraph - not the least of which involves garnering the cooperation of Iran and Syria (though peeling Sunni insurgent groups away ain't exactly a can of corn either).

In a circular fashion, Syria, Iran, and even some Sunni insurgent groups, might be more willing to strike such deals if we started heading for the exits. Syria and Iran wouldn't have any more incentive to create chaos in order to keep us tied down (we'd be leaving anyway), nor would they be able to bleed us of any more blood and treasure. On the flip side, they would be faced with the prospect of finally having to reapply the lid to the cauldron that they have tried to keep boiling (not that it has required much effort on their part, or relied on them for initial impetus).

The Sunni groups might be more open to discuss settlement, too, if they believe they will face the full force of the Shiite government forces without us around as an intervening factor.

Whether it comes before a troop surge aimed at marginalizing and picking off the radical splinter groups/recalcitrant insurgent factions, or after we begin our withdrawal from Iraq, engaging Syria and Iran is a must. That feat alone will not save Iraq (not by a long shot), but without Syria and Iran on board, there is little hope of finding salvation, or mitigation, elsewhere. The same could be said for our attempts to reach out to Sunni insurgent factions willing to move in constructive directions.

Just because these attempts to staunch the bleeding will not be perfect, does not mean they are not worthy of pursuit. When engaging in damage control, it is pointless to make the perfect the enemy of the good.

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