GEPR Guest Blog: Webster Brooks on Cooperation w/ Iran …

Posted in Uncategorized by groffellison on October 22, 2008

Why Obama Must Secure Iran’s Cooperation to Withdraw Troops in Iraq

Guest blog by Webster Brooks lll

Should Barak Obama become America’s 44th president, his plan to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq in sixteen months and “end the war” will require the cooperation of Iran. While the presidential campaign debate narrowly focused on the troop surge, the reduction of violence in Iraq has obscured one fundamental truth; the Iraqi government will continue to be dominated by pro-Iranian forces led by Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki. Pro-Iranian militias will remain largely in control of the Army, the national police and the intelligence apparatus. The question is; how can Obama win Iran’s cooperation in Iraq while simultaneously putting the brakes on their nuclear ambitions and support for “terrorist” organizations?

The calculus of a new Iraq peace strategy that incorporates Iran’s cooperation is straight forward. Iran wants dramatic reductions of the 130,000 U.S. troops perched on its borders and threatening its national security. Tehran also wants an end to U.S. troop cross border raids and ongoing U.S. covert operations inside Iran authorized by President Bush’s executive finding in 2007. On the other side of the ledger Obama needs to start moving troops out of Iraq immediately and shifting forces to Afghanistan. He also needs Iran’s help to reign in Iraqi Shiite militias, and push Shiite leaders to negotiate in good faith by giving minority Sunni forces enough political and economic clout to avoid the resumption of sectarian warfare.

Barak Obama is fully aware that his 16 month troop withdrawal timetable is not realistic. Iraq’s government, national army and national police will not be prepared to take full control by August 2010. Thus, he must play for time to allow Iraq’s government to stabilize while national reconciliation inches forward. If violence and U.S. troop deaths are minimal, Americans will be forgiving of an extended timetable. The critical next step in the process and one that is out of Obama’s control is the Status of Forces Agreement currently being negotiated with Iraq. It calls for U.S. troops to withdraw from Iraq’s major cities by June 2009, and for all U.S. troops to be out of Iraq by December 31, 2011. Under pressure from other radical Shiite forces and Iran to shorten the timeline, Maliki announced on October 19 that the agreement is not satisfactory and must be amended before being voted on by Iraq’s parliament. Thus, the Status of Forces Agreement will shape the withdrawal timeline that Obama ultimately will navigate.

Going forward, the political and military landmines that could impede progress toward a U.S. troop withdrawals in Iraq are formidable. Extremists and al Queda forces will not go gently from Iraq. Obama and American military leaders in Iraq will also need to craft a strategy to maintain the military separation between the Sunni Awakening forces and al Queda. In addition to the political reconciliation process, Obama will need the assistance of Iran and Saudi Arabia to help broker and guarantee agreements between the Sunni, the Kurds and the majority Shiite. The next big hurdle will be the national and provential elections in Iraq in 2009, and the explosive referendum on the status of Kirkuk. Ironically, Iran also has presidential elections in 2009. If President Ahmadinijad is defeated by a more “moderate” candidate, Obama’s ability to work with Iran and sell his policy to the Ameircan people could become immeasurably easier. 

To secure Iran’s cooperation in Iraq Obama must make the first move. At the moment, Iran holds a strong position in Iraq. Iran’s long standing ties with Iraq’s majority Shiite religious community, its substantial economic investments in Iraq and its ties to the Kurdish political leaders constitutes substantial political clout. Thus, it’s unlikely that Obama can coerce Iranian cooperation by threatening aerial strikes against their nuclear sites, getting sanctions on Iranian gas imports or an improbable land invasion. Quite the opposite, Obama could open the door to direct talks with Iran on the Iraqi conflict with soft power. By reviving recently scuttled  proposals to establish direct commercial airline flights between Iran and America, and by resurrecting talks on opening a U.S. Interest Section in Tehran, Obama could signal to Iran’s Supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei that there is a genuine interest in diplomacy.

Apart from direct talks with Iran on Iraq, Obama should revive the Geneva Contact Group with Iran to discuss a broader array of issues. The Contact Groups’ back channel negotiations proved invaluable in gaining Iran’s assistance at the outset of the U.S. Afghanistan invasion. Obama will also be under tremendous pressure from Republicans and military hawks to halt Iran’s nuclear drive to master the uranium enrichment process. Obama’s initial efforts will likely center around getting an IAEA verification team back on the ground in Iran. Obama can score a huge political breakthrough if he can convince the Iranians to temporarily suspend enrichment activity while getting the inspection teams up and running. However, he may have to settle for allowing enrichment to continue as a condition for getting the inspection teams back in. The nexus of Obama’s position must be that today we have the worse of both worlds; no IAEA nuclear inspections and Iran’s continuation of the enrichment process. The non-starter that Obama must avoid is insisting that Iran stop its uranium enrichment program as a pre-condition to talks.

What is most critical to a new Obama administration’s foreign policy approach in the Persian Gulf is to cultivate an environment that encourages Iran to re-examine the opportunities to improve its relations with the United States and its own national security interest. Iraq is the place where the national security interest of the U.S. and Iran intersect and both sides have something to gain. If substantial progress can be made there, the potential to achieve progress in Afghanistan and on the nuclear standoff will be dramatically improved.


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