Iraq 'mystery', Iran 'puzzle', and Gates

The current lack of sustained engagement with Iran harms US interests in a critical region of the world...Direct dialogue with Tehran on specific areas of mutual concern should be pursued.

Nicole Stracke
Security and Terrorism Program
Gulf Research Center

In August 2004, Robert Gates was asked to make his predictions on Iraq's future. His answer: "We have the old line in the intelligence business that everything we want to know is divided into two categories: secrets and mysteries (and) Iraq is very much the latter."

Now, following his appointment as the new US Secretary of Defense, Gates is in the driving seat steering the administration towards an acceptable solution on the Iraq 'mystery'.

At the same time, Gates has voiced his strong opinion about how to solve the Iran 'puzzle', saying that "the current lack of sustained engagement with Iran harms US interests in a critical region of the world...Direct dialogue with Tehran on specific areas of mutual concern should be pursued." The US should selectively engage Iran on issues where the interests of the two countries converge, "building upon incremental progress to tackle the broader range of concerns that divide the two governments."

So, the question is: how can Gates handle the two crises?

On Iraq, Gates has limited options and little room for maneuver. The new defense secretary may have arrived too late to the scene -- at a time when the situation seems to be beyond a solution.

A complete US troop withdrawal from the conflict-ridden country will be very costly for Iraq, as well as the region and the US. A troop withdrawal at this stage would be a defeat of the basic US objective in the region, as Iraq is likely to fall apart and end up under the control of extreme Sunni and Shiite groups, split in three entities -- a national Kurdish state in the north, an Ayatollah government in the south and Sunni fundamentalist state in the center of Iraq.

It is assumed that Gates was not appointed to bring about such a scenario. Considering his background and experience as an intelligence chief, he could tilt toward another recently circulated idea in the intelligence community. This scenario is based upon the idea of a military takeover by a group of trusted army officers in order to replace the current Iraqi government. This small circle of army officers belonging to the disbanded Iraqi army would represent the various sectarian affiliations of the complex Iraqi society. Similar to the scenario that the US adopted in Vietnam at one stage, this option is based on the assumption that these army officers would be able to impose effective control over the fractured country with the 'support' of the US Army. It is assumed that a new "strong leader" drawn from a new and strong central government could stabilize Iraq by declaring a state of emergency and suspending the democratic process. This is based on the idea that security is the prerequisite for democratization. The US might use this overall assumption as an argument to justify a military takeover to the American and world public.

Currently, the Iraqi society's demands are limited -- disappointed with the current government that is unable to guarantee security and lead the country away from the possibility of a civil war, it is assumed that the Iraqi society and the neighboring Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries would be tempted to welcome a "strong leader" who could enforce law and order.

There is a downside to this option -- the US would have to publicly abandon the process of democratization in Iraq and admit its weakness in controlling the country. The evident absence of US power could agitate all the sections of the Iraqi society and add fuel to fire. Secondly, once the new military leadership is in power, there is no guarantee that, in the long term, it will not abuse its position and develop into a tyrannical regime similar to Saddam Hussein's reign. It is also uncertain if the US will then have a say in the domestic developments in Iraq. In the long term, there is a chance that external actors will have diminishing influence and control over domestic politics in the region. Overall, a military takeover may stabilize Iraq in the short term, but spell uncertainty over the long term.

The third scenario that is in line with Gates' own views is centered around US engagement with Iran. In 2004, Gates stated that engagement with Iran was a possible alternative to confrontation since the unilateral policy adopted by the US to isolate Iran had not met with any success; it had neither prevented Iran from establishing its nuclear program nor contained Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs. Iran is currently the only country that might be capable of influencing some extreme Shiite groups to end the violence. However, given the fact that the current violence not only includes extreme Shiites but also Sunnis, the Iranian capability to influence the stabilization of the overall situation in Iraq is certainly limited. Moreover, any closer US engagement with Iran will be viewed with caution by the GCC countries which are afraid of Iran emerging as a new "super-regional power".

Further, Gates' vision of engaging Iran on the Iraq issue was tested on 26 March 2006, when a team of American and Iranian officials met in Baghdad and tried to establish a dialogue to solve the Iraqi crisis. The conflict point that led to the final collapse of the dialogue was the diverse opinions and objectives. While the American officials were hoping to focus the dialogue on the Iranian interventionist policy in Iraq, Iran's objective centered around discussions covering all issues, including Iraq, the nuclear file, the US economic sanctions and other issues with the US that are outstanding since the 1979 Iranian revolution.

During the meeting, the two sides found that the gap between them was almost unbridgeable. That impression was emphasized with Iranian Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khameini saying that the only solution to the Iraqi crisis is complete American withdrawal, which asserted that further American presence in non-negotiable. Whether any new engagement with Iran and the revival of the March 2006 dialogue is possible depends now on whether or not both sides are capable of changing their attitudes, positions, demands, and objectives.

The current reality on the ground is that the Iranian nuclear file has been highly internationalized through the role of the UN Security Council. Resolution 1696 demands from Iran the suspension of uranium enrichment, making its nuclear program an issue that the international community has to deal with, and not just the EU or the US.

So far, the Iran's intervention in Iraq has remained outside the parameters of the UN Security Council. However, under Gates' leadership, the US could think of reviving the March 2006 dialogue offering the Iranians a clear-cut option, de-linking the Iranian nuclear issue from the Iraq situation. The US could sternly warn Iran to end any interventionist policy in Iraq and offer a bilateral agreement between itself and Iran over Iraq. The US could suggest that if Iran fails to act, Washington would internationalize the issue and seek a Security Council resolution to impose restrictions on Iran as punishment.

It is hard to predict Gates' course of action. He has been a member of the Baker-Hamilton Commission, a study group that went to Iraq to make new recommendations on the US government's policy in Iraq, and has first-hand knowledge about the ground realities. However, now that he is part of the decision-making process, how Gates will work on the Iraq mystery and solve the Iran puzzle remains a secret for now.

Published: 15 Nov 2006


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