Iran may still be talking tough about the US, its nuclear ambitions and Israel. But at the same time Iran seems to be offering the US a way out of a quagmire that has all but destroyed the Bush Presidency. In recent months Iran has brokered a cease fire between the Mahdi army and Iraqi government, facilitated the Badr militia merger with the Iraqi military (it’s not clear how independent they are, but it does at least give the Iraqi military a stronger force) and has essentially done all it could to stabilize the situation in Iraq.
There are competing theories as to why Iran is suddenly so agreeable, despite lack of any positive move from the US. One could be a fear that a McCain Presidency would continue the US presence in Iraq indefinitely, and that the US has to be given a chance for a graceful exit. While as I noted last week nothing can make this operation a success, most people would label it a success if they could just declare victory and leave Iraq in a stable condition. Iran may be helping make that possible, recognizing that a post-occupation Iraq would have very close allies with Iran.
Another theory, of course, is that this is an illusion, the calm before the storm. Those who see Iran in a more nefarious light believe that Iran does not want stability in Iraq, and was disappointed by the inability of the Mahdi army to really put up a fight a couple months ago. In this view, Iran is slowly arming and preparing some kind of terror offensive to be unleashed at a time during the Presidential campaign when the impact will be strongest. I find this extremely unlikely. First, despite Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric, Iranian foreign policy has been exceedingly rational and has avoided overstepping its capacity. They know how to play cat and mouse, and have been very patient. Second, Iran has a vested interest in a stable Iraq, and in avoiding a Shi’ite-Sunni conflict. Bottom line: Iran has an interest in stability in Iraq just like the US does.
So what’s the endgame? Essentially the US has two options:
A) remain hostile towards Iran, maintaining a long term presence in Iraq; or
B) change policies on Iran to open up diplomatic discussions and allow a near total withdrawal of American forces from Iraq.
“B” brings about a quick solution: troops come home, the long nightmare is over, the public is able to put the war behind them, the US can focus again on counter-terrorism and dealing with Afghanistan and the Taliban (violence continues to be up there). The pro-war side will declare victory, the anti-war side will say “what was the point of all this death and destruction,” but the real result will develop slowly, over time, as a post-occupation Iraq takes form.
Those arguing “A” believe that this is a false conclusion of the conflict. Iran, they argue, would benefit by having extensive influence in Iraq, undercuting efforts to make Iraq a stable American ally able to model democracy for the region. This will be seen to legitimize Iran’s status as a regional power, and therefore offers short term relief at a steep long term price.
Ironically, those arguing “A” are right in many of their arguments, but wrong in their prescription. Iran is becoming a regional power, diplomacy with them would ‘legitimize’ them and hurt efforts to stop them from getting nuclear weapons. This would assure that Iraq remains closer to Iran than to the US, an ironic outcome to this ill conceived conflict. However, the fact of the matter is that the US has no better option. Trying to turn Iraq into a stable pro-western democracy is a feat of social engineering that the US does not have the capacity to achieve. Neo-conservatives were right when they condemned social engineering by big government, it’s a shame they didn’t recognize that’s what they’re attempting in Iraq. Iranian influence is real, and Iran could turn up the heat at any time if the US appeared to be doing things undercutting Iranian interests. Add to that the fact the military is overstretched, the war is exceedingly unpopular at home, and there are other crises out there, as well as vulnerabilities to oil panics (and Iran could easily manufacture one of those), and the US really has little to gain and a lot to lose by continuing the Iraqi occupation with the goal of creating a stable ally to the US.
Moreover, diplomacy with Iran is not appeasement. The US knows that Iran wants the Americans to leave, and we can demand a price. One possibility would be to divide Iraq, which itself is a country with arbitrary borders. The Kurds already have autonomy, as well as good relations with both the US and Iran. The US could negotiate a continuing presence of some troops in peaceful Kurdistan, both to keep some pressure on Iran, but also to help keep peace between the Kurds and Turks. The Sunni region could get important oil field access, and have a close alliance with Jordan and Saudi Arabia, with tacit American assistance. The majority Shi’ite portion of Iraq would be closer to Iran. This could all be worked out in a very ‘balance of power’ style negotiation where no one gets all they want, but stability is created that is sustainable without requiring a massive intervention of troops.
This won’t solve the other issues between the US and Iran, but the fact is that Iran is a regional power and it’s not going away. No precision bombing can alter that, and all out war would be far too costly with consequences that could be devastating. Perhaps working together on an end game in Iraq might help open doors to solving other problems.