Helman Guest Editorial: Regional Conference with Iran
Ambassador Gerald B. Helman writes:
“In the weeks ahead, the Administration likely will try to play down the importance of its agreement to participate in a regional conference on Iraq. The decision was announced by Secretary Rice at the tag end of her testimony February 27 to the Senate’s Appropriations Committee. Administration background briefers seem to suggest that US agreement to now support a proposal sporadically advocated by the Maliki government is, variously, a reward for the Iraqi government’s recent good behavior, an opportunity to skewer Iran and Syria for their misdeeds in Iraq, and in any event nothing new since the US has long been willing to consider a regional conference.
In my judgment, however, the decision to participate in such a conference will prove to be a major development, with its own dynamic, and inevitably will involve more issues than just the status of Iraq. But Iraq will come first and foremost.
Soon, much more will be known about the conference, its participants and their views, agenda, and the “shape of its table.” But some things can confidently be inferred about its dynamic based on what we know now.
The US decision to support a conference must have been made many weeks ago. To get to the point of Rice’s announcement, there would have to have been the usual internal US process leading to Presidential approval. At some point, Iraq would have been given the high sign to move ahead (nothing would have happened without our approval). Iraq (and/or maybe Saudi Arabia) would have sounded out Syria and Iran and gotten their assent. The US certainly would have checked with the UK and maybe Germany as current President of the EU.
If that’s the case, it is fair to ask what persuaded the Administration to chart what could well prove to be a new course. After all, it was early last December when the President dismissed the Iraq Study Group’s diplomatic offensive recommendation in favor of a troop surge. We can only speculate, but here are some possibilities:
** Domestically, the President could be hearing that if the Republican Party has to contest the 2008 elections while a civil war is going on and Americans are dying, the Party will go down in flames. All its gains beginning in the Reagan years will be lost, maybe for a decade to come. Within the bureaucracy, the modest success achieved thus far with multilateral diplomacy in the case of North Korea and in applying pressure on Iran may have strengthened Rice’s hand, presumably against Cheney. Gates must be a pleasure after Rumsfeld.
**Militarily, there may be a number of contributing factors:
*The realization that the troop surge at current levels will not work and that to send more than 20,000 will lead to strong and outspoken resistance from the uniformed services, Congress and growing elements of the GOP. Moreover, the Iraqi military will be incapable or unwilling to operate at the levels the US is looking for.
*It will be very difficult to interdict the kinds and volume of assistance to Iraqi factions now being rendered by Syria and Iran without many more US soldiers and/or effective cooperation by Iraq. In a civil war, that’s not going to happen.
*Implied and threatened military action against Iran have lready evoked strong domestic and international opposition. It can’t continue much longer without being read as ineffective bluff.
*The UK’s decision to begin disengagement will place a heavier burden on the US and essentially does away with the fiction of a Coalition. Now, its all US, all the time.
*Perhaps most importantly, Afghanistan is heating up and we may have to significantly increase our forces there to counter the Taliban’s expected Spring offensive. Iran supported US objectives there in 2002; they may be needed again.
**And politically, there also are a number of factors:
*With the UK disengaging, there is not a country in the world that would break a sweat to help us (Australia excepted).
*The countries of the region, the “moderates”, may themselves be dismayed at the Administration’s political ineptitude and increasingly concerned that unless steps are taken to promote longer term stability, chaos lies ahead that might threaten their own futures. It would not be surprising were it to turn out that Saudi Arabia (and Jordan?) have as a consequence been actively promoting with Iran, Syria and others (including the US) the idea of a diplomatic offensive.
*The Maliki government seems really to want this conference, in part perhaps to establish its legitimacy (and independence?) as an international player. And its foreign policy emphasizes good relation with Iran and Syria.
The conference reportedly will begin in March, probably in the Green Zone, with an organizational meeting and continue in April outside Iraq at the Foreign Minister level. Presumably, discussions of substance will begin there. In looking ahead, keep in mind that in multilateral diplomacy, process (the modalities) can oftentimes shape substance. Who attends, who chairs, the content and order of the agenda, the venue, the working rules (are there to be subcommittees?), who provides the Secretariat, provisions for follow-on conferences, for inter-sessional meetings–all can very much shape the dynamics of a conference as well as its substantive achievments, or lack thereof. For example, the participants reportedly will include the countries of the region (I take that to mean the Arab countries of the Middle East, minus Lebanon and North Africa), Iran of course, the Permanent Members of the Security Council, the EU President, the UN Secretary General and, I would guess, representatives of UN agencies dealing with economic matters.
With such a lineup its hard to imagine that some way won’t be found for Iran to meet with the five countries involved in nuclear discussions, with the US in the wings.
But certainly, the business of the conference will focus very much on one issue: how and when will US forces depart Iraq. We can expect very little support for our continuation of the surge, nor for the maintenance of bases nor for any extended and conditioned departure. The US may seek to indict Iran and Syria, but that is easily dealt with. Both will deny wrongdoing and readily join in a conference resolution not to interfere in the internal affairs of Iraq. There certainly will be an appeal for economic help for Iraq, easily met with a paper IOU.
The Conference may also offer the US an opportunity over the longer run to establish and institutionalize a more stable security environment in the region, with the US and its forces a continuing and accepted element. The Administration could make preparation of positions for the conference a truely bipartisan effort and even propose some level of Congressional participation. Regretably, this Administration lacks the imagination, courage and time to bring that about.”
Helman “was United States Ambassador to the European Office of the United Nations from 1979 through 1981.”