Secret Deal between US and Iran on Iraq
The United States entered into secret negotiations with the Iranian regime with regard to Iraq, according to al-Zaman. It said that Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asafi gave an interview in which he detailed the negotiations. The paper alleges that Iran agreed to cease interfering in Iraq. In particular, it stopped its secret police and Revolutionary Guards from continuing to establish nodes of influence in Shiite cities like Najaf and Karbala. In return, Washington would recognize Iran’s legitimate role in the region and would negotiate in good faith about a number outstanding issues between the two countries. Chief among these is the US concern that Iran has a secret nuclear weapons program. Iran has made conciliatory noises about signing the additional protocol to the Nonproliferation Treaty. US Secretary of State Colin Powell had recently signalled Washington’s willingness to talk to Iran.
It is hard to know what to make of all this. It seems to me that there were probably three parties contributing to Iran policy in Washington. The Department of Defense has spoken belligerantly about Iran, and it appears from what Wesley Clark says that Rumsfeld and company developed a plan for seven wars after September 11, with Iran being one of them. Soon after Saddam fell, Fox Cable News began setting up Iran and Syria as the next targets, usually a sign of a campaign on the Right. Even before then, Richard Perle had fingered Iran, in February:
“The United States will not be satisfied with toppling Saddam Hussein, but also seeks to change other regimes throughout the Arab world. Richard Perle, chairman of the U.S. Defense Advisory Board, said the regimes include those in Iran, Libya and Syria. Perle told Arab journalists during a trip to London last week that the U.S. tactic would differ for each country. Perle, who is close to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, is said to be one of the architects in the Bush administration on the policy of the toppling of the Saddam regime, Middle East Newsline reported.”
Perle’s views are interesting because he is at a powerful nexus of the Likud Party in Israel, which would be the main beneficiary of the seven wars, and WASP hawks like Rumsfeld in Washington, who have their own reasons for wanting them. Desire to overthrow the Tehran government seems likely to have been in part behind the campaign to tag it with attempting to develop weapons of mass destruction, which is the new capital crime for regimes among the hanging judges in the Department of Defense.
But there are two other major policy-making centers. One is the State Department and the other is the Coalition Provisional Government, headed by Paul Bremer. Bremer has repeatedly warned Iran publicly against interfering in Iraq. The US has expressed concerns about the activities of Iranian intelligence in cities like Karbala. There is evidence of Iranian support for the Badr Brigade and for the radical, Muqtada al-Sadr and his movement. If the Shiite South became as unstable as the Sunni Arab Triangle, that would possibly sink the whole US enterprise in Iraq. So from Bremer’s point of view, neutralizing an Iranian-inspired Shiite militancy is highly desirable.
My guess is that the Perle/Rumsfeld plan for seven wars has been put on hold because the aftermath in Iraq has not gone well. The Bush administration is highly vulnerable to Iranian mischief-making, which if crafted well could be done in such a way as to cost Bush the presidency in 2004. (The Iranians may well have deliberately helped Reagan beat Carter, by being intransigent on the embassy hostages, in 1980, so they are old hands at this sort of thing).
So Bremer would have been frantically signalling to Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz that he needs Iran on board if his mission isn’t to collapse and maybe take the Bush administration down with it. If I am right that Bremer’s voice is heard in this respect, it would parallel the ways in which the British Government of India often influenced British foreign policy, with Calcutta being a policy-making center in addition to London.
Moreover, with 130,000 US troops pinned down in Iraq, the US simply doesn’t have the military capacity to attack and hold Iran. (Rumsfeld may have insisted the brass take Iraq with so few troops to prove that future such missions, e.g. to Tehran and Damascus, could also be accomplished with only 7 or 8 divisions, since he knew that after Iraq he was unlikely to have the 13 or 14 divisions the Pentagon officer corps preferred for such missions. Ironically, his insistence on such a small force may well have derailed the later plans, since the US troops were not numerous enough to establish order in post-Baath Iraq and so got bogged down. Rumsfeld had hoped to get all but a division or so back out by fall of 2003, i.e., by about now. Instead, he still has 130,000 troops tied up in Iraq and is having to call up an extra division of reserves).
If the hawks in Defense have to postpone their plans to Deal With Tehran, then the only alternative is to send in the State Department to find some way to trade some horses and get relations with the mullahs back to some semblance of normalcy. Instead of acting like a Revolutionary Power (Kissinger’s characterization of France under the Revolutionary and Napoleonic regimes) in the Middle East, as planned, the US might have to go back to being a status quo power. Even if Bush wins again in 2004, it is not clear that it will have the military resources to go after Iran, Syria and the others on the list. That will only be possible if a stable government with its own effective military emerges in Iraq in the short term, which is capable of blunting further Iranian moves. That development seems unlikely at all, but especially unlikely before 2006. It is possible that the hawks hope to go after the remaining targets at that time, if the political situation permits.
On the other side, the Iranians are giving money to a range of Iraqi political figures, from Ahmad Chalabi to Muqtada al-Sadr. It is hard to see how it is in their interest to stop, since they need the influence this money buys for future contingencies.
If this analysis is correct, then the Iranians are faced with a dilemma. If they do indeed back off from mischief-making in Iraq now, they may simply be hastening the time when Rumsfeld feels strong enough to take out Tehran. They have to get more out of the deal than a simple postponement of the American war on them, if it is to be worth their while. But there is no obvious way to tie Rumsfeld’s hands as to what he will do in 2006.
The only thing they could realistically get out of such an arrangement that would actually protect them would be US permission to develop a nuclear weapon, and such permission seems highly unlikely to be granted, even if Iran had this capability in the short term, which seems unlikely.
For these reasons, I am personally pessimistic that any US truce with Iran over Iraq will hold.