Iran shadow over US-Iraq security pact
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
Amid a rising chorus of internal opposition to a proposed long-term United
States-Iraq security agreement, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki visited
Tehran at the weekend to address Iran's concerns about the matter and,
simultaneously, to improve the security and military component of Iran-Iraq
relations. This is bound to further complicate the US's effort to nail this
agreement before the end of the year, when the United Nations mandate for the
presence of "coalition forces" in Iraq runs out.
Already, US ambassador to Baghdad Ryan Crocker has accused Tehran of throwing a
monkey wrench into the sensitive US-Iraq security discussions by trying to
"complicate" them, as if the denunciation of the said accord by the Grand
Ayatollah Ali Sistani and numerous other leading Iraqi clergy and politicians,
Sunni and Shi'ites, has not already rendered it nearly impossible to realize.
Iraqi Defense Minister General Abdulghadir Jasim al-Abidi, accompanying Maliki,
has met his Iranian counterpart, Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najar, who has
informed the Iranian press that the two ministers have reached an agreement on
enhancing Iran-Iraq defense cooperation in such areas as "border security, land
and sea delimitation signs, mine sweeping, defense, educational and logistic
cooperation in various fields".
Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, on the other hand, in his meeting with
Maliki, stated that "neighbors, friends and the United Nations should assist
Iraq with the establishment of stability and security".
Clearly, Iran has strong misgivings about the hitherto confidential US-Iraq
security deal that, although its main outlines covering political, economic and
security cooperation, were signed by Maliki and President George W Bush last
November, is still being negotiated and has become a hot topic of controversy
in Iraq and the region.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zibari has told the US media that Baghdad has a
problem with the accord in the sections dealing with Iraq's sovereignty, and
other Iraqi officials and lawmakers have focused in particular on the issues of
"extraterritoriality" that would place American soldiers and contractors
working in Iraq beyond the pale of the Iraqi judicial system. There is also
concern over the US's request for "long-term bases" and the duration of the
security agreement, with some Iraqis hinting the accord seeks a
In light of the tense US-Iran relations, Tehran is adamantly opposed to any
long-term US presence across the border, especially when there are unconfirmed
reports that the US has specifically requested the right to use its bases in
Iraq against hostile forces in the region beyond Iraq's borders.
This, in turn, explains Tehran's interest in seeing that the agreement is
modified to include a pledge from the US that it would not to attack Iran from
its bases inside Iraq. There are, in other words, both positive and negative
sides to an agreement between Washington and Baghdad as far as Tehran is
concerned, although at present there is muted debate in Iran as to which side
has the upper hand.
With the issue of "institutionalization of the present political structure in
Iraq" being top priority for Iran, to paraphrase an article by a former deputy
foreign minister, Mahmoud Vaezi, Iran is deeply concerned about Iraq being
steered toward the Arab bloc headed by Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The trick,
however, is how to balance the long-term goal of dissociation of Baghdad from
the net of US dependency against the realities of Baghdad's need for military
According to Vaezi, "The principal US approach during the past five years in
Iraq has been unilateralism, monopolism and avoiding the participation of other
regional and extra-regional players." But, is the US ready to adopt a new
approach now, that is, to parcel out the Iraqi security "pie" and, in tandem
with the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, invite neighboring countries
such as Iran and Syria officially into the Iraq "security game"? (The Iraq
Study Group, a 10-person bipartisan panel appointed by the US Congress, issued
a wide-ranging report on December 6, 2006.)
Iran is not likely to be included in the near future, but this does not mean
the US will corner itself into a non-bargaining posture; much depends on who
takes over the White House come next January - Democrat Barack Obama or
Republican John McCain.
Meanwhile, with the Bush administration reportedly pressing to finalize the
security agreement some time this summer, Iran's nuanced reaction is geared to
coordinate with the broad religious and political coalition being formed in
Iraq in opposition to the security agreement, while at the same time not going
to the extreme of letting rhetoric supplant cold geopolitical considerations.
Baghdad, to paraphrase Iran's National Security Chief Saeed Jalili in his
meeting with Maliki, needs to "rely on popular support".
What this boils down to is that Iran, in exchange for closer security and
military connections with Iraq, would tolerate more robust Iraq-US security
relations with clearly defined specifications on the status of forces.
From the vantage point of Iran's national security, Iraq's security and
regional security are closely connected and it is unrealistic for the US (and
Israel) to constantly threaten and undermine Iran's national security while
expecting steady and uninterrupted improvement in US-controlled Iraq, as if
these are two separate issues.
Linked to this is Iran's concern that the growing controversy over the US-Iraq
security agreement may damage the legitimacy of Maliki's government and thus
undermine the current political process to the advantage of the Sunni bloc led
by Saudi Arabia. Therefore, Tehran has not overlooked how potentially
debilitating this thorny issue could turn out to be for the Tehran-friendly
regime now in power in Iraq.
An effective solution is transparency and a parliamentary seal of approval on
any agreement between Baghdad and Washington, as called for by the Iraqi
constitution, Article 58, Section 4, and demanded by Sistani and a host of
other leading Iraqi clergy.
Although necessary, this may not be sufficient, recalling how Japan's similar
experience with the US - over ratification of the 1960 Treaty of Mutual
Cooperation and Security - instigated serious political crisis in that country.
Learning from Japan and other experiences, such as South Korea, Iraqi
politicians are in a position to initiate restrictions on the free and
unconstrained movement of the US military, for example by emulating the
Japan-US agreement's specifications on the areas designated for US military
facilities, usage and on the administration of local employees used by those
For now, the Iranians are banking that the US's objective of garnering a
long-term security pact from Baghdad is not politically feasible and that the
US will likely settle for a more modest request. This could involve the
extension of the UN mandate for another year to allow more time to negotiate
the complex and multi-faceted issues regarding the Iraqi security calculus and
their ramifications beyond Iraq's borders.
Certainly, as long as the US's policy toward Iran remains predominantly hostile
and wedded to a discourse of a "new cold war", there are structural limits to
the horizon of the possible in terms of US-Iran cooperation on Iraq, and this
alone raises the issue of a "new US approach toward Iran", as called for by
some US politicians and pundits.
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New
Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and co-author of
"Negotiating Iran's Nuclear Populism", Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume
XII, Issue 2, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu. He also wrote "Keeping
Iran's nuclear potential latent", Harvard International Review, and is author
Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction.