Al Jazeera Magazine
5 December 2008
There are certain fundamentals to an international negotiation that simply cannot be massaged or altered, even with the political momentum fostered by America’s incoming president, Barack Obama.
In the last five years, Tehran and Washington have jockeyed for influence in Iraq and occasionally negotiated with each other to shape the country’s democratic Shia majority to their own advantage.
And while Tehran’s nuclear weapons program has inspired greater international concern, Washington has kept any talk of nukes on the sidelines for years, hoping that the US could tackle that problem once Iraq stabilized—much as it has in recent months.
But two immediate obstacles threaten American stakes in Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The first is President-elect Obama’s repeated pledge to withdraw all combat forces from Iraq by the summer of 2010, and the second is the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which was approved by Iraq’s cabinet and parliament last week after months of acrimony in Baghdad. The SOFA timetable requires all US combat forces to be out by the end of 2011, and for Iraqi authorities to control all military bases, cities and decision-making apparatuses by this time next year.
Yet however it happens, a unilateral US withdrawal from Iraq will leave Washington with virtually nothing of substance to offer Iran in return for the verifiable termination of Tehran’s nuclear weapons program.
Control of Iraq is the most important card that Washington holds right now—a card, no less, that Tehran wants more than any other, and one that the US is about to give away for free. Iran has a vital interest in keeping their fellow Shias in power in Iraq and in ensuring that the US is unable to use Iraqi bases to launch attacks on Iran. Yet from Iran’s perspective, SOFA and the new administration’s pledge to be out in 16 months both provide Tehran excellent reason to sit on its hands and ample time to develop a nuclear weapon.
Granted, the US intelligence community believes that Iran terminated its nuclear weapons program in 2003, but simply taking Langley’s word seems a bit amnesiac, especially when Washington already has the leverage to solicit verified guarantees about a critical national security concern.
Once US forces pull out of Iraq, Washington will have no credible stick or carrot with which to persuade Iran to terminate its weapons program. Sanctions will fail so long as Russia is a thorn in America’s side—providing Tehran with everything it needs—and Moscow is becoming increasingly thorny these days. President-elect Obama says he wants to give far more weight to diplomacy than his predecessor did—which is a truly welcome development—but diplomacy is just a word when the US has nothing to trade. Welcoming correspondence and “interests sections” might grease the wheels (which need plenty of greasing), but at the end of the day, we want something from them, and they want something from us. There is no honor system among enemies, so President-elect Obama will be unable to leverage the withdrawal from Iraq after the US departure.
Admittedly, for a number of reasons, it is vital to US national security that American forces withdraw from Iraq, but it would prove shortsighted if that withdrawal is conducted unilaterally or even bilaterally between Washington and Baghdad. If Washington fails to trade influence in Iraq for a verifiable end to Iran’s weapons program—even if it was terminated 5 years ago—then the real meat and substance for an unprecedented rapprochement between the US and Iran will evaporate. And when it does, if evidence surfaces that Iran is still pursuing a nuclear weapon, then an American air strike will become inevitable.
There are, however, two unlikely possibilities that would preclude the bombing. First, if a renewed sectarian conflagration plunges Iraq into such misery that the SOFA and President-elect Obama’s withdrawal pledge must be reconsidered, then he will have the space and time to renegotiate the withdrawal on terms that include Iran’s nuclear transparency. (The SOFA allows either side to dissolve their obligations with one year’s notice.)
Second, there is a chance that the very deal outlined above is already in the pipeline. After all, it remains unclear exactly how the US was recently able to persuade Iran to tighten its leash on a number of Shia militias that were fueling Iraq’s civil war. This Iranian concession could have been part of a far grander trade.
Yet pursuing such talks in the year leading up to pivotal presidential elections in both countries (Iran’s will be in June) would have been inherently risky for any government hoping to reach a sustainable agreement. If this deal is under way, however, then Obama is well situated to take the reigns and give the process new life with his reconciliatory streak.
After five years of negotiating from a position of dire weakness, it might not be too late to take advantage of the gains made in Iraq by cutting a deal with Tehran when Washington is strongest and ready to withdraw from Iraq anyway.