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
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
"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
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
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
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.  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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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. For his
Wikipedia entry, click here.