Share

Two Busted Flushes: The U.S. and Iranian Negotiations

Print Text Size

By George Friedman

U.S., Iranian and Syrian diplomats met in Baghdad on March 10 to discuss the future of Iraq. Shortly afterward, everyone went out of their way to emphasize that the meetings either did not mean anything or that they were not formally one-on-one, which meant that other parties were present. Such protestations are inevitable: All of the governments involved have substantial domestic constituencies that do not want to see these talks take place, and they must be placated by emphasizing the triviality. Plus, all bargainers want to make it appear that such talks mean little to them. No one buys a used car by emphasizing how important the purchase is. He who needs it least wins.

These protestations are, however, total nonsense. That U.S., Iranian and Syrian diplomats would meet at this time and in that place is of enormous importance. It is certainly not routine: It means the shadowy conversations that have been going on between the United States and Iran in particular are now moving into the public sphere. It means not only that negotiations concerning Iraq are under way, but also that all parties find it important to make these negotiations official. That means progress is being made. The question now goes not to whether negotiations are happening, but to what is being discussed, what an agreement might look like and how likely it is to occur.

Let's begin by considering the framework in which each side is operating.

The United States: Geopolitical Compulsion

Washington needs a settlement in Iraq. Geopolitically, Iraq has soaked up a huge proportion of U.S. fighting power. Though casualties remain low (when compared to those in the Vietnam War), the war-fighting bandwidth committed to Iraq is enormous relative to forces. Should another crisis occur in the world, the U.S. Army would not be in a position to respond. As a result, events elsewhere could suddenly spin out of control.

For example, we have seen substantial changes in Russian behavior of late. Actions that would have been deemed too risky for the Russians two years ago appear to be risk-free now. Moscow is pressuring Europe, using energy supplies for leverage and issuing threatening statements concerning U.S. ballistic missile defense plans in Central Europe — in apparent hopes that the governments in this region and the former Soviet Union, where governments have been inclined to be friendly to the United States, will reappraise their positions.

But the greatest challenge from the Russians comes in the Middle East. The traditional role of Russia (in its Soviet guise) was to create alliances in the region — using arms transfers as a mechanism for securing the power of Arab regimes internally and for resisting U.S. power in the region. The Soviets armed Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Libya and so on, creating powerful networks of client states during much of the Cold War.

The Russians are doing this again. There is a clear pattern of intensifying arms sales to Syria and Iran — a pattern designed to increase the difficulty of U.S. and Israeli airstrikes against either state and to increase the internal security of both regimes. The United States has few levers with which to deter Russian behavior, and Washington's ongoing threats against Iran and Syria increase the desire of these states to have Russian supplies and patronage.

The fact is that the United States has few viable military options here. Except for the use of airstrikes — which, when applied without other military measures, historically have failed either to bring about regime change or to deter powers from pursuing their national interests — the United States has few military options in the region. Air power might work when an army is standing by to take advantage of the weaknesses created by those strikes, but absent a credible ground threat, airstrikes are merely painful, not decisive.

And, to be frank, the United States simply lacks capability in the Army. In many ways, the U.S. Army is in revolt against the Bush administration. Army officers at all levels (less so the Marines) are using the term "broken" to refer to the condition of the force and are in revolt against the administration — not because of its goals, but because of its failure to provide needed resources nearly six years after 9/11. This revolt is breaking very much into the public domain, and that will further cripple the credibility of the Bush administration.

The "surge" strategy announced late last year was Bush's last gamble. It demonstrated that the administration has the power and will to defy public opinion — or international perceptions of it — and increase, rather than decrease, forces in Iraq. The Democrats have also provided Bush with a window of opportunity: Their inability to formulate a coherent policy on Iraq has dissipated the sense that they will force imminent changes in U.S. strategy. Bush's gamble has created a psychological window of opportunity, but if this window is not used, it will close — and, as administration officials have publicly conceded, there is no Plan B. The situation on the ground is as good as it is going to get.

Leaving the question of his own legacy completely aside, Bush knows three things. First, he is not going to impose a military solution on Iraq that suppresses both the Sunni insurgents and the Shiite militias. Second, he has successfully created a fleeting sense of unpredictability, as far as U.S. behavior is concerned. And third, if he does not use this psychological window of opportunity to achieve a political settlement within the context of limited military progress, the moment not only will be lost, but Russia might also emerge as a major factor in the Middle East — eroding a generation of progress toward making the United States the sole major power in that region. Thus, the United States is under geopolitical compulsion to reach a settlement.

Iran: Psychological and Regional Compulsions

The Iranians are also under pressure. They have miscalculated on what Bush would do: They expected military drawdown, and instead they got the surge. This has conjured up memories of the miscalculation on what the 1979 hostage crisis would bring: The revolutionaries had bet on a U.S. capitulation, but in the long run they got an Iraqi invasion and Ronald Reagan.

Expediency Council Chairman Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani already has warned the Iranians not to underestimate the United States, saying it is a "wounded tiger" and therefore much more dangerous than otherwise. In addition, the Iranians know some important things.

The first is that, while the Americans conceivably might forget about Iraq, Iran never can. Uncontrolled chaos next door could spill over into Iran in numerous ways — separatist sentiments among the Kurds, the potential return of a Sunni government if the Shia are too fractured to govern, and so forth. A certain level of security in Iraq is fundamental to Iran's national interests.

Related to this, there are concerns that Iraq's Shia are so fractious that they might not be serviceable as a coherent vehicle for Iranian power. A civil war among the Shia of Iraq is not inconceivable, and if that were to happen, Iran's ability to project power in Iraq would crumble.

Finally, Iran's ability to threaten terror strikes against U.S. interests depends to a great extent on Hezbollah in Lebanon. And it knows that Hezbollah is far more interested in the power and wealth to be found in Lebanon than in some global — and potentially catastrophic — war against the United States. The Iranian leadership has seen al Qaeda's leaders being hunted and hiding in Pakistan, and they have little stomach for that. In short, Iranian leaders might not have all the options they would like to pretend they have, and their own weakness could become quite public very quickly.

Still, like the Americans, the Iranians have done well in generating perceptions of their own resolute strength. First, they have used their influence in Iraq to block U.S. ambitions there. Second, they have supported Hezbollah in its war against Israel, creating the impression that Hezbollah is both powerful and pliant to Tehran. In other words, they have signaled a powerful covert capability. Third, they have used their nuclear program to imply capabilities substantially beyond what has actually been achieved, which gives them a powerful bargaining chip. Finally, they have entered into relations with the Russians — implying a strategic evolution that would be disastrous for the United States.

The truth, however, is somewhat different. Iran has sufficient power to block a settlement on Iraq, but it lacks the ability to impose one of its own making. Second, Hezbollah is far from willing to play the role of global suicide bomber to support Iranian ambitions. Third, an Iranian nuclear bomb is far from being a reality. Finally, Iran has, in the long run, much to fear from the Russians: Moscow is far more likely than Washington to reduce Iran to a vassal state, should Tehran grow too incautious in the flirtation. Iran is holding a very good hand. But in the end, its flush is as busted as the Americans'.

Moreover, the Iranians still remember the mistake of 1979. Rather than negotiating a settlement to the hostage crisis with a weak and indecisive President Jimmy Carter, who had been backed into a corner, they opted to sink his chances for re-election and release the hostages after the next president, Reagan, took office. They expected gratitude. But in a breathtaking display of ingratitude, Reagan followed a policy designed to devastate Iran in its war with Iraq. In retrospect, the Iranians should have negotiated with the weak president rather than destroy him and wait for the strong one.

Rafsanjani essentially has reminded the Iranian leadership of this painful fact. Based on that, it is clear that he wants negotiations with Bush, whose strength is crippled, rather than with his successor. Not only has Bush already signaled a willingness to talk, but U.S. intelligence also has publicly downgraded the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons — saying that, in fact, Iran's program has not progressed as far as it might have. The Iranians have demanded a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, but they have been careful not to specify what that timetable should look like. Each side is signaling a re-evaluation of the other and a degree of flexibility in outcomes.

As for Syria, which also shares a border with Iraq and was represented at Saturday's meetings in Baghdad, it is important but not decisive. The Syrians have little interest in Iraq but great interest in Lebanon. The regime in Damascus wants to be freed from the threat of investigation in the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, and it wants to have its interests in Lebanon guaranteed. The Israelis, for their part, have no interest in bringing down the al Assad regime: They are far more fearful of what the follow-on Sunni regime might bring than they are of a minority Alawite regime that is more interested in money than in Allah. The latter they can deal with; the former is the threat.

In other words, Syria does not affect fundamental U.S. interests, and the Israelis do not want to see the current regime replaced. The Syrians, therefore, are not the decisive factor when it comes to Iraq. This is about the United States and Iran.

Essential Points

If the current crisis continues, each side might show itself much weaker than it wants to appear. The United States could find itself in a geopolitical spasm, coupled with a domestic political crisis. Iran could find itself something of a toothless tiger — making threats that are known to have little substance behind them. The issue is what sort of settlement there could be.

We see the following points as essential to the two main players:

1. The creation of an Iraqi government that is dominated by Shia, neutral to Iran, hostile to jihadists but accommodating to some Sunni groups.
2. Guarantees for Iran's commercial interests in southern Iraqi oil fields, with some transfers to the Sunnis (who have no oil in their own territory) from fields in both the northern (Kurdish) and southern (Shiite) regions.
3. Guarantees for U.S. commercial interests in the Kurdish regions.
4. An Iraqi military without offensive capabilities, but substantial domestic power. This means limited armor and air power, but substantial light infantry.
5. An Iraqi army operated on a "confessional" basis — each militia and insurgent group retained as units and controlling its own regions.
6. Guarantee of a multiyear U.S. presence, without security responsibility for Iraq, at about 40,000 troops.
7. A U.S.-Iranian "commission" to manage political conflict in Iraq.
8. U.S. commercial relations with Iran.
9. The definition of the Russian role, without its exclusion.
10. A meaningless but symbolic commitment to a new Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Such an agreement would not be expected to last very long. It might last, but the primary purpose would be to allow each side to quietly fold its busted flushes in the game for Iraq.

Share