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    Middle East
     Oct 28, 2008
US raid in Syria spooks Iran
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

Tehran feels increasingly threatened by the United States-Iraq security agreement that will allow 50 US military bases throughout Iraq, including several in areas close to the Iran-Iraq border.

"The Status of Forces agreement permits the construction of large US forward bases near not only Iran but also Syria and as a result is a cause of serious worry by both Tehran and Damascus," said a prominent Tehran University political science professor.

In light of the incursion on Sunday by US forces inside Syrian territory, ostensibly to pursue al-Qaeda terrorists, there is suddenly concern on the part of many analysts in Tehran that the security agreement between Baghdad and Washington is not simply an internal matter for Iraqis to decide, but rather a regional

 

issue that calls for direct input by Iraq's neighbors.

American military helicopters struck in Syrian territory bordering Iraq, killing eight people. The raid is said to have targeted a network of al-Qaeda-linked fighters using Syria to reach Iraq. The raid comes as Washington and Baghdad are negotiating a bilateral agreement that will set the terms for how US and coalition troops continue to occupy and fight in Iraq. The current United Nations mandate for the multinational forces expires on December 31.

"Iraq's neighbors have been asked by the international community to participate in Iraq's reconstruction and therefore by definition they should also be involved in security matters as well," another analyst at a Tehran think-tank told the author.

This is not altogether an unreasonable request. Iran and the US have participated in three rounds of dialogue on Iraq's security, and that, according to Tehran analysts, is as good a reminder as any that Washington's decision to ignore Iran's viewpoints on the security agreement is a bad error.

Simultaneously, there is a feeling that not all is lost and that the architects of this agreement have indeed taken into consideration some of Iran's vocal objections, such as the initial agreement's provisions for extraterritoriality whereby US personnel in Iraq would be immune from the Iraqi laws. That aspect has been modified, and the agreement also sets a time table for the withdrawal of US forces by no later than December 31, 2011, again something favored by Iran.

Realistically, however, hardly anyone in Tehran is willing to place a bet on the actual withdrawal of the US's "interventionist force" by either the set deadline of 2011 in the pending agreement or any time shortly thereafter. Rather, most analysts in Tehran appear resigned to the South Korea analogy, foreseeing a "long stay perhaps stretching into decades", to paraphrase the Tehran professor.

Still, no matter what the Iranian calculation of future US military moves, for now the emerging consensus is that Iran's national security is potentially imperiled by the security pact that in effect gives license to US forces to play deterrent vis-a-vis Iran.

Nor is anyone in Tehran convinced that Democratic Senator Barack Obama's presidency would introduce any major military shift of policy on Iraq, no matter the election promises by Obama about withdrawing US forces. Healthy cynicism or not, the widespread perception of the US military as intrinsically interventionist is a root cause of the present Iranian worry about the security pact, that until now had been articulated almost entirely in terms of the agreement's violation of Iraq's sovereignty and adverse effects on Iraq's own security.

However, from the moment the initial news of the agreement was leaked to the public last year, Iraqi officials have insisted that the agreement is harmless toward Iraq's neighbors and, in several visits to Tehran, Iraq's foreign minister and national security advisor have commonly played the theme that the US would be prevented from using its bases in Iraq to attack Iran.

But, such assurances, previously doubted due to the structural weaknesses of the Iraqi government, now ring hollow in the aftermath of the US's raid inside Syria, which could easily be replicated in Iran with similar excuses. Or even worse, ones pertaining to hot pursuit of Iran's supposed accomplices with the people who plant roadside bombs.

Clearly, the small US raid inside Syria has already had a disproportionate impact on Iran, by heightening the already high national security concerns of the country in the post-September 11, 2001, context. [1] As a result, in reaction to the US's calculated move inside Syria, Iran's close ally, Tehran is sure to escalate its rhetoric against the security agreement.

In turn, this will mean more friction between Tehran and Washington at a crucial time when the White House change of guard is imminent and a less hawkish president, Obama, seems destined to replace President George W Bush, widely regarded as a warmonger in the Middle East.

"The chances are that the US incursion into Syria is a dress rehearsal for action against Iran and the [Iranian] Revolutionary Guards [Corps], just as they often portray Israel's aerial attack on Syrian territory last year as a prelude for an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities," said the Tehran political scientist, adding that since the US had already branded Iran's Guards as terrorists, it had the necessary rationale to do so.

In the event the US indulges in such a gambit, the issue becomes whether it will be a one-shot single incursion or a series of raids and, more important, what will happen should Iran fight back and respond in kind, within Iraq's territory.

There are serious scenarios for major escalation nested in every micro action and US policymakers would be remiss to focus on their own action without taking into consideration the likely chain reaction that could lead to a regional flare-up.

The timing of the US's raid, coinciding with the heated cabinet debates in Iraq on the security agreement, is also important since it may signal a new and more aggressive US determination to force the issue and set aside diplomatic niceties.

There is always the nationalist undercurrent as well, that the US may be tapping into via this show-case raid, to somehow shore up support for the security agreement. That seems unlikely to succeed, however, and given the recent huge popular Baghdad turnout against the agreement, the unintended consequences of the US's raid into Syria may turn out to be more ammunition not only in the hands of Iranians but also the forces of Shi'ite leader Muqtada al-Sadr and others who have categorically opposed the security agreement as anti-Iraqi.

A sign of overconfidence, the US raid may also signal the Pentagon's conclusion that the security agreement is a fait accompli and only cosmetic changes will be added before it is fully adopted. If so, that could be a costly mistake, since in today's volatile Iraq nothing can be taken for granted and should such provocative moves by the US military actually help the opposition to the agreement, then we may conclude that the US military may be discretely sabotaging the agreement in light of the major revisions injected into it by Iraqi politicians, on withdrawal of forces, legal immunity, prison control, and the like.

While such speculation about the real purpose and timing of the US's raid inside Syria can now be found aplenty, there is on the other hand a clearing effect on the threat perception of both Tehran and Damascus with respect to the net minus of the security pact with respect to their national security interests.

This will probably cause a greater bond between Tehran and Damascus, contrary to recent efforts by Washington and Tel Aviv to drive a wedge between them. At the same time, small-scale US attacks inside Syria could well trigger larger such actions, threatening Syria's military power or, at a minimum, an overt bullying of Syria (considered relatively vulnerable).

This could be yet another miscalculation. Syria cannot be so easily bullied and the most likely result of such blatant moves by the US military is to cement the alliance of regional forces who oppose the US's military presence.

Note
1. For more on this see Maleki and Afrasiabi, Reading in Iran's Foreign Policy After September 11.

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 of Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction. For his Wikipedia entry, click here.

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