The ties that tangle Iraq and
Iran By M K Bhadrakumar
The meeting of the board of governors of
the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) at
Vienna last week on the Iran nuclear issue turned
out to be a poker game. The United States dealt
from a weak hand, likely knew it had a weak one,
but thought that with some bravado and luck it
could carry the day.
An atmosphere of
suspense was created in the run-up to the meeting,
a lot of dust was raised, and under the cloud
cover the US gained another few months until March
to put pressure on Iran.
that by March there may be greater clarity
about the shape of things to
come in Iraq - and, in turn, how much regional
clout Iran may come to wield that could have a
bearing on its nuclear policy. Iraq is due to
stage parliamentary elections in December.
In the face of Iranian "intransigence"
over the IAEA's September 24 resolution,
conceivably, Washington should have upped the ante
at Vienna on November 24. But it hasn't. In
September, the IAEA's 35-nation board of governors
formally accused Iran of non-compliance with the
nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), paving the
way for referral to the United Nations Security
Council and possible sanctions.
apparently allowed itself to be persuaded to give
Iran more time to ponder over a "Russian proposal"
that would involve the construction of an
enrichment facility in Russia in which Iran would
have management and financial interest, but not a
themselves say in some embarrassment that their
"proposal" is nothing new and that it was first
put across to Iran a year ago. Iranians maintain
that they want to hear more about the "Russian
proposal". Meanwhile, they, too, came up with a
"proposal" that they were open to foreign
participation in any uranium enrichment activity
Immediately before the IAEA
meeting began last week, Iranian Foreign Minister
Manoucher Mottaki said in Vienna, that "enrichment
[of uranium] and the fuel cycle are things that
the Islamic Republic of Iran considers to be its
natural and legitimate right and within the
framework of the NPT."
A spate of American
statements has appeared alongside, claiming that
Russia and China have been "enlisted" by
Washington on the Iran nuclear issue. These
statements create an impression that the
international community now onward (comprising the
US, the EU-3 - Germany, Britain and France -
Russia and China) will be working in concert to
get Tehran to agree to the "Russian proposal".
American statements claimed that President
George W Bush raised the issue with his Russian
counterpart, Vladimir Putin, during his recent Far
East tour - and Putin was in "a problem-solving
mode" (to quote US National Security Advisor
Hadley added that the
Russians were feeling "frustrated" with the
Iranians. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
claimed separately that China, too, by abstaining
over the September 24 resolution, was distancing
itself from Iran.
Moscow and Beijing,
however, seem uncomfortable that Washington is
arbitrarily hijacking their Iran policy. Their
foreign ministries have since crisply restated
their consistent position favoring a solution to
the Iran nuclear issue within the IAEA.
There is also ambiguity whether Russia
will be a participant or be an honest broker, or
just a facilitator at any future meeting between
the EU-3 and Iran.
What stands out is that
Washington resorted to grandstanding in order to
cover up the accelerating collapse of its regional
policy in Iraq, which surely casts a shadow on the
US capacity to force its will on the Iran nuclear
All protagonists - the EU-3, Russia
and Iran - seem to realize this stark reality. The
danger now is that Iran may overreach. Moscow and
Beijing have counseled Tehran to be flexible.
But, on the other hand, Russia does seem
to be in a "problem-solving mode" over Iraq. At a
meeting in Busan, South Korea, between Bush and
Putin on November 18, Iraq figured in the
discussions. Bush, who faces a nasty domestic
crisis over the Iraq war and who might even be
keen to avoid a showdown with Iran, could do with
some Russian help.
According to Hadley,
Bush was "anxious to find ways" to get Putin "to
be supportive of what the Iraqis are doing" so
that there was "progress" in Iraq. Bush and Putin
discussed "a couple of ways that might be done".
Hadley wouldn't publicly discuss such a sensitive
topic but, essentially, the US was "trying to find
ways in which Russia can contribute to the
progress [in Iraq]".
It does not need a
second guess to divine that Washington will be
much obliged if Russia can use its traditional
influence with Ba'athist elements in Iraq to
settle for a reconciliation. The Iraqi elections
are due in mid-December. The Arab League is
working on an intra-Iraqi conference in February.
The success of the conference hinges on the
participation by the Ba'athist faction.
For the Americans, there is a tight
calendar ahead. Opposition to the war is cascading
in the US. The three-day Iraqi national
reconciliation conference that ended in Cairo last
Monday agreed on two major points: that there
should be a timetable for the withdrawal of
foreign troops from Iraq, and, second, that
resistance to foreign troops was the right of all
Iraqis, while terrorism remained reprehensible.
The influential daily al-Hayat reported
that the participants of the Cairo conference
envisaged the withdrawal of foreign forces from
Iraqi cities within six months (say, mid-May) and
that the withdrawal would be completed over a
period of two years (by end 2007).
According to al-Hayat, the American
ambassador in Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, concurred
with this timetable, and, in Cairo, Sunni
insurgent groups met with American functionaries.
Following the Cairo conference, the two
Kurdish leaders, President Jalal Talabani and
Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, headed in two
directions - Tehran and Moscow. The Kurds are
naturally anxious about new patterns appearing on
the Iraqi political tapestry. They have maximum
stakes in limiting any Ba'athist role in Iraqi
Following Zebari's "working
visit" to Moscow, the potentials of Russian
involvement in Iraq have been clarified. Russian
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov strongly supported
the forthcoming intra-Iraqi conference in February
and offered Russia's help in the Arab League's
efforts toward a "deepening" of intra-Iraqi
dialogue so as to "narrow the base for violence".
But Lavrov emphasized that Russia expected
Baghdad to honor Russian oil companies'
multi-billion dollar contracts signed with Saddam
Hussein's regime. Zebari's response was
ambivalent. "The Iraqi government recognizes its
responsibility for the contracts Russia signed
during Saddam Hussein's rule," Zebari said, but
"regulating Iraq's political and economic ties
with Russia would be up to the next permanent
So, what about the
"next permanent Iraqi government"? That was what
Talabani's visit to Tehran was about. Talabani,
who has kept close contacts with the Iranian
regime for the past few decades, was naturally
given a red-carpet welcome.
discussions brought out the following. Iran will
not easily countenance an accommodation of
Ba'athist elements in Iraq's power structure -
something that suits Talabani, too. Second, the US
attitude toward Iran (over its nuclear program)
will impact on Iran's willingness to cooperate
over orderly US troop withdrawal from Iraq. Third,
instead of a pan-Arab identity for Iraq, Tehran
visualized that Iraq "will glitter in the world of
Islam in the near future" (to quote Supreme Leader
Ali Khamenei). Fourth, Iran is determined to play
an assertive role in shaping Iraq's political
Thus, on balance, Washington has
sought Moscow's help in stabilizing Iraq and
thereby facilitating an early American troop
withdrawal. Moscow on its part is willing to move
in tandem with (pro-American) Arab regimes in the
region in persuading alienated Sunni groups to
reconcile. And Iran has reminded all concerned
about the influence it wields in the region.
As things stand, never before have the two
strands - the Iraq problem and the Iran nuclear
issue - become so closely intertwined.
M K Bhadrakumar served as a
career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for
over 29 years, with postings including India's
ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey