Next Stop: Iran?
Monday, January 15 PRI: "Open Source"
Introduction, from the "Open Source" website
When we saw President Bush’s surge speech last week, we heard his acknowledgement that the situation had worsened in 2006. And that he was taking responsibility. And that, as had been leaked for the last week or more, an increase of 21,000 troops, mainly in Baghdad, was the only way to make the bloody situation better. But when a number of veteran Middle East policy heads saw the same speech, they heard three words: Iran, Iran, and Iran.
Succeeding in Iraq also requires defending its territorial integrity and stabilizing the region in the face of extremist challenge. This begins with addressing Iran and Syria. These two regimes are allowing terrorists and insurgents to use their territory to move in and out of Iraq. Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops. We will disrupt the attacks on our forces. We will interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria. And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq. President George W. Bush, January 10, 2007
This wasn’t just rhetoric, of course. The next morning, as if on cue, US forces detained five Iranians at their consular office in Northern Iraq.
And as for the larger strategic moves, Bush had this to say:
We are also taking other steps to bolster the security of Iraq and protect American interests in the Middle East. I recently ordered the deployment of an additional carrier strike group to the region. We will expand intelligence sharing and deploy Patriot air defense systems to reassure our friends and allies. We will work with the governments of Turkey and Iraq to help them resolve problems along their border. And we will work with others to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons and dominating the region. President George W. Bush, January 10, 2007
And now the New York Times is arguing that even the selection of Navy Admiral William J. Fallon as the new commander of CentCom is itself evidence of gunboat diplomacy. Is this more than sabre- (or carrier-) rattling? How did the speech go down in Tehran? What’s their next move? What’s ours?
Flynt Leverett,Senior Fellow and Director of the Geopolitics of Energy Initiative, New America Foundation; Author, “Dealing with Tehran: Assessing U.S. Diplomatic Options Toward Iran” for The Century Foundation
Barry Posen, Professor of Political Science, MIT; Author, “A Nuclear-Armed Iran: A Difficult But Not Impossible Policy Problem” for The Century Foundation
Farideh Farhi, Iranian, Professor of Political Science, University of Hawaii at Manoa
Host: Chris Lydon
Chris Lydon: The lead into President Bush's "surge" speech on TV last Wednesday night had to do with sending 21,500 more GI's to Iraq. And the half-confession that mistakes were made -- and the president's responsible. And some pretty stiff resistance in Congress and the country against escalating a war which has been going badly now for more than three years. Those have been the American headlines, but they're not what the Middle East heard, nor what the professional readers picked up. To their ears, the key curls of news and policy in that "Iraq" speech had to do with Iran. Next door the meddlesome mullahs' regime, easily pictured of the default winner in Iraq and a candidate now for diplomatic attention. But in the president's rhetoric, and in the posting of patriot missiles and a carrier strike group to the Persian Gulf, Iran looks like the target in a war getting wider and hotter just when the people said "cool it down!" The Iran tack in the Iraq war is what we'll be discussing today... The day after the speech, like clockwork, the US forces detained five Iranian officials inside Iraq, and there's another carrier strike group steaming toward Iran. Is it bluff? Is it bluster? Is it a distraction? Or a rough kind of courtship with Iran which James Baker's Study Group said we should be engaging? How close to the brink do you think we are, and how did we get there? I'd like each of our guests to take a crack at the urgent question: how did this rather belligerent poke at Iran get into the president's speech on Iraq? and does it foretell a wider war.
Flynt Leverett: Well, I certainly don't think it was a rhetorical accident! I think that the administration has been signalling for some time that it has no interest in going down the road of even limited engagement that the Iraq Study Group suggested with regard to Iran. In fact, the administration wants to take policy toward Iran in a harder direction, and the president in his speech -- I believe he essentially laid both the rhetorical and operational foundation so that, if he takes the decision to use military force against Iran in the coming months, he will have laid the foundations for acting on that decision.
CL: You say they have no interest in limited engagement a la Iraq Study Group. Why not?
FL: Well, I think that they don't like the idea of engaging Iran at all. They don't like the notion of comprehensive engagement with Iran. But they don't even really like the idea of trying limited or specific issue engagement. This was something that the administration did with Iran with regard to Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks and it was very successful tactical engagement with Iran. But the administration ultimately decided to break it off. There are a lot of reasons inside the administration why there's such resistance to engaging Iran, but I think it really -- most fundamentally -- boils down to the president's own view of this country and this regime. He sees the Islamic Republic of Iran as a fundamentally illegitimate political regime, and he is very resistant to doing a deal with this regime even if it were a deal that solved the very pressing security problems for the US and its allies. He doesn't want to do a deal with a regime if it means that at some level he is going to have to accord them legitimacy.
CL: I read your interesting piece outlining an alternative diplomatic grand bargain with Iran and we're going to get to it, but first, Barry Posen: does this foretell a wider war including a war with Iran?
Barry Posen: I think we have to ask the question why the president, who was getting ready to make a speech recommending a policy that he knew was going to be unpopular -- and resisted -- would load that speech with another piece of a policy which he also could expect to elicit some resistance. So I have to believe there's something really bothering them. I'm not exactly sure what it is. I think you can probably construct three explanations. One is that they need it. The rhetoric that Iran is a big part of the problem that Americans are having in Iraq is a rhetoric they believe, they actually believe. I think most people would say that Iran is certainly part of the problem in Iraq. But the biggest part of our problems in Iraq originate with the Iraqis. The second possibility is that they're trying to gain support for this project. There are people who might be hard over against doing anything else in terms of the Iraq project but who nevertheless have serious issues with Iran. These are people who might be particularly pro-Israel or people who are proliferation hawks -- very, very concerned about non-proliferation and very, very concerned that Iran could become a nuclear weapons state. And the final possibility is that the president hopes to use these other two arguments and the fact that there is an Iranian presence in Iraq to confront the Iranians and to generate the circumstances that would permit a kind of spiral of escalation between us and them, that could provide an occasion to do what we occasionally hear rumors about -- which is to actually attack Iran and to try and take down whatever pieces of its nuclear energy complex we find most worrisome. So any or all of these things could be true and I'm guessing it's a combination.
CL: Farideh Farhi -- you know Iran more intimately than anybody I know. Does Iran expect a military assault by the US? How would it view the prospect?
Farideh Farhi: The US is always a threat to Iran and obviously, if you're an Iranian decision maker and you're watching the dynamics of what's going on in the region, they must be worried at this coordinated effort. On the one hand, they're sending carrier groups, and on the other clear a coordinated decision to kidnap five Iranian diplomats must worry them. However, it's important to understand that Iran is not a country with one voice. The way various Iranian voices within the Iranian dynamic are responding to this situation at this point... they are indeed voices that are writing editorials saying flat out that this is very ineffective bluster... coordinated but nevertheless an attempt to bully or scare Iran into a weak diplomatic position. There are others who are making comparisons at this point with what happened in 1988 when the US shot down an Iranian airbus at the end of the Iran-Iraq war. When the US takes such a bold step in many different directions, there are ripples within the context of the Iranian political system and it will take the Iranians a little while to adjust and respond.
CL: Spell out those "ripples." Are we talking about resistance? Are we talking about an erosion of the truculent Ahmadinejad's support? Are we talking about back-channel conversations?
FF: It could be all three. The Iranian political system is a very dynamic and fluid political system. It's very difficult to foresee the direction an Iranian response will take. So far it has been very sedate, within the context of international law -- demanding release of the diplomats... American actions are being seen as provocative, intended to provoke, and therefore requiring a calm response. What it will do is to initiate or continue intense discussions going on in Iran in relation to what needs to be done with a US that has become increasingly aggressive in relationship to Iran. So it will take a while before we see a full-fledged response or a reaction of all the various players to what has happened. As in the case of the US, when the Iraq Study Group's recommendations came out, many of us thought the most that could happen would be that the Bush administration would not react favorably the Iranians and the recommendations about Iraq. Very few of us thought it would go in the opposite direction. In the case of Iran, familiar dynamics are in play.
CL: I'd like to throw out the notion -- without suggestion moral equivalence -- that there's a certain weird symmetry in the leadership. Two belligerent, ideological chieftains, both with weakening power bases in their respective country, it seems, playing a kind of chicken. Or talking a kind of chicken. Is this the kind of thing you observe, Flynt? or you can talk about?
FL: There is some validity to that image. In a way, their neocons empower our neocons, and our neocons empower theirs! Ahmadinejad clearly represents a more ideologically hard-edge, rhetorically very provocative strand of Iranian conservatism that I think is very different in some important respects, particularly on foreign policy issues from the kind of more traditional conservatism represented by the Supreme Leader or some other officials in the Iranian leadership. Bush is clearly a very, very radical departure from traditional, mainstream Republican thinking about American foreign policy. In many ways his excesses definitely bolster Ahmadinejad and Ahmadinejad's camp inside Iran. Clearly when Ahmadinejad says some of the provocative and outrageous things he's said about Israel and the Holocaust, it plays into the hands of those in the administration and elsewhere in the American body politic.
CL: Barry Posner, would you review... the tactical news, including the appointment to Centcom primacy of Admiral Fallon, arrests or the kidnappings at Irbil, and the carrier group maneuvers. Just what is underway there?
BP: We can try and make some inferences from the few facts that we have, but they're only logical inferences -- we can't really be sure. The first question -- why appoint an admiral to Centcom, this has not been done before, he's going to be the military overlord of two big ground wars -- so why an admiral? The speculation is running that there's a big maritime security problem out there because so much oil goes through the Gulf of Hormuz. If you look at the kinds of things the Iranians have done to try and dissuade us from attacking them, they basically send messages that imply they have the naval capability to make trouble out there. So if you're thinking that there could be some escalation with the Iranians, caused by us... caused by them... caused by Iraq... caused by our interest in proliferation -- whatever it is -- then the naval aspect of it could be important and they figure that may be a good reason to get a Navy man out there. It may also be true that the administration is thinking of ratcheting uip economic pressure on Iran. Once these ineffectual sanctions run their political course in the next two months, they might try something a little more assertive. One could imagine some kind of game around this proliferation security initiative in which we start searching Iranian vessels and hassling Iranian vessels under the pretext of saying, We're just looking to see if weapons of mass destruction materials are moving in and out of Iran. It would be a way of putting pressure on them. So you could imagine it has that purpose... I don't think they needed to send the carrier task force out there to increase their ability to mount airstrikes on Iran because we have lots of ways to mount airstrikes already. I don't think that's the reason. I think it probably has more to do with things we imagine that could happen at sea or that we might do at sea. I might also say as a footnote to Admiral Fallon: Admiral Fallon is said to be quite a good diplomat, well respected in Asia for his diplomatic skills. Centcom is a big command -- I've forgotten how many countries are in it... it's actually surprising large, nearly two dozen. It's a big job to run the political/military aspects of it and Fallon has a good reputation in that regard. The patriots that we're sending out -- that indicates a fear of escalation on the part of the Iranians. The Iranians aren't just going to get up one morning and attack other countries with missiles or aircraft. They know they'd be very vulnerable to a counterstrike. So I think that we're imagining somehow we might be doing things to them that may cause them to mount a counterstrike. So it's a bad sign. Usually you send a defensive weapon, you feel good about it. Why is it you're worried that you need a defensive weapon in this case and why the other guy is going to escalate. And the final business is hassling Iranian officials in Iraq. Our people have been making the argument that the Shiite militias have become more militarily capable because of their connections to Iran. It's difficult to unravel how factual this is. The militias have certainly gotten more capable. The SKIRI militia -- Badr was always connected to Iran. There's a particular munition that's shown up in Iraq that's been rather deadly against our people. It's a kind of mine that's very good at penetrating armored vehicles and has probably killed many dozens of American soldiers. And there's been a persistent claim that that weapons can somehow be tracked back to Iraq though the smoking gun of that has never actually been revealed. There's an element of truth in it -- Iranian assistance tougher in a general way and more dangerous to us in a very specific way.
CL: Flynt Leverett: I want your assessment of all these bristling war instruments and tools that could come into play. But then I'd like you also to explain the alternative in a "grand bargain" with Iran. I should have said at the outset that Flynt Leverett was the guy who wrote the op-ed piece on Iran which his old bosses at the CIA inked out here and there. The Times printed the inkblots as well as most of the text. Review the chamber of horrors that Barry Posner just led us through, Flynt, and then give us the Flynt Leverett alternative.
FL: I think Barry did a very find job of reviewing the military implications...
CL: He scared me!
FL: .. and rationale for the various steps that the US is taking, deployment, efforts to hassle Iranian diplomats and other officials inside Iraq. But I think what it all adds up to is that the administration is taking seriously -- at least -- the option of a military escalation with Iran, perhaps generated by developments in Iraq, perhaps generated by developments on the nuclear issue, perhaps a synthesis of the two. But I think the administration is very clearly and deliberately laying the groundwork for implementing that option in the next few months. It was really very striking to me the president's language in his speech about how Iran is providing material support to attack US forces. That is a casus belli. That is something I think down the road -- Barry is right -- we've never seen the smoking gun on, but that is something that a president can use rhetorically to justify using military force against Iran under Article 51 of the UN Charter. And call it "legitimate self-defense." I think it was a very deliberate marker that was put down in that speech. It's a very clear indication to me that the administration is really closing the door on serious engagement with Iran and is at least exploring the door that will take them down the road towards a serious military confrontation.
CL: At what risk and at what price closing that door?
FL: Oh, I think the risks, if we got into some kind of serious military confrontation with Iran... Certainly US forces would tactically achieve objectives that were set for them but I think strategically it would be a disaster for the US position in the region. It would very much inflame things in Iraq. If we think American troops are having a hard time right now, wait until the Iranians let all of their proxies loose on us! Iranians have ways of further undermining the stability of Afghanistan. There'll be implications for the oil market. But most significantly, you would have a very, very profound regional backlash against the US, not just in Iran and not just among Shia Muslims. I think there could be a very very pronounced backlash in Sunni Muslim populations. It would make it very difficult for traditional allies in states like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan to maintain the kind of strategic partnership with the US that they've had over the years. I think it would fundamentally damage American legitimacy in the region -- even more than that legitimacy has been eroded by US actions in the past few years. The alternative, I believe, is comprehensive diplomatic engagement -- what I call a grand bargain. There are those -- Baker Hamilton was one example -- who argue that we need to engage Iran but we need to do it on a kind of gradual or issues-specific basis. We'll talk to them about Iraq because we have some common interests in stability there. But I think at this point that is simply not going to work. The Iranians have tried specific-issue engagement with us on a number of occasions over the years -- most recently with regard to Afghanistan after 9/11. In each case they've had an American administration that essentially pulled the plug and kept that tactical engagement on a particular issue from being the foundation for broader rapprochement between the US and Iran. They're not going to go down that road again. They're not going to help us in Iraq because they have some interests there -- they can protect those interests there perfectly well without us. We've put ourselves in a position in Iraq where, frankly, we need them more than they need us. But the only way they're going to help us is if we're prepared to engage them comprehensively and have the potential out there for a fundamentally different and more positive US-Iranian relationship. The only way you're going to do that is if you put all of the major outstanding differences between the two countries on the table and you resolve them as a package. Their nuclear program, their ties to Hezbollah and Hamas, their attitude towards the Arab-Israeli conflict, their position in Iraq. In return we need to be prepared to talk about our willingness to accept the Islamic Republic of Iran, to lift unilaterial sanctions, to normalize relations with the present Iranian regime. We can't solve any one of these issues without resolving all of them...
CL: I follow you. It's attractive and it's tempting! I wonder whether you could unwind all the historical injuries and resentments that came not only from the '79 capture of our embassy but the American destabilization of their democracy in 1953, back before the Shah. There are layers and layers here. On the other hand, it cries out for a long and comprehensive review of this whole history.
FL: There's enormous historical baggage on both sides of this relationship. Obviously Americans have very deep-seated grievances...
CL: ...and so do the Iranians!
FL: ... terrorist attacks against American interests. Iranians have their own baggage, not just the coup in '53 that overthrew the Mossadegh government and restored the Shah but our support for an aggressive war conducted against them by Saddam Hussein in which Saddam used WMD's against Iran with no real punishment from the US. There's a long list of grievances on both sides. It really is, in some ways, comparable to the US and China before the breakthrough President Nixon and Dr. Kissinger engineered. We could have just kept fighting historical grievances and ideological antipathy towards this communist regime in China, but we made a strategic decision that it was in our interest to reorient American foreign policy in a fundamental way. I'm afraid that's what it's going to take here. It's going to take a decision of that depth, of that strategic magnitude.
CL: Farideh Farhi, our blogger-in-chief, Brendan Greeley, wants to pose a question to you out of this rather wide polarity of American possibilities, from war tactics to a comprehensive grand bargain.
Brendan Greeley: About two hours ago, on our website, a commenter named "N.Bowling" logged in and wrote, "The legacy of the overthrow of Mohammed Mossadegh as told by Stephen Kinzer in "All The Shah's Men" casts a long shadow on American-Iranian relations." For the US it is barely a footnote in the long history of Cold War interventions. For Iran, it's a seminal moment that colors their view of America. So the question is: We believe we've been sending Iran coded language in various speeches, but from their perspective, what are these other seminal moments of the last thirty years? What actions of the last decades have they been paying attention to and drawn lessons from?
FF: Well, I agree with Flynt that in relationship to discussions that Iran and the US may or may not have, the key moments are not necessarily 1953. The reality is that since the end of the Iran-Iraq war, Iran has made several attempts at improving relations with the US. Concerted efforts, whether it's giving contracts to American companies that became the basis for sanctions against Iran later on, or when the US attack Iraq in the first Gulf War, the Iranians essentially stayed back without engaging or getting support to the Shiite Iranians in Basra. And then in 199l. And later on helping in Afghanistan. A variety of times. The Iranians essentially feel that in their relationship with the US, they have tried to send signals and through those signals improve relations. And that has not worked. The same kind of dynamic operated with in the context of the nuclear negotiations where the Iranians feel they showed quite a bit of flexibility. In the end, ultimately, these limited negotiations with Iranians (in their mind, showing their good will) they did not get what they wanted -- which was to improve relations with the US or at least some sort of neutralization of American animosity. Each time American rhetoric and American actions against Iran intensified. So at this point I think part of of the reason the hardliners running the show in Iran has less to do with 1953 and historical grievances than the reality that in the past 20 years, hardliners argue, they have tried to give concessions to the US but it has not worked. The US only will accept us if we take a hardline stance. And that is what makes the Iranian dynamic extremely difficult and dangerous at this point. The US has made the decision to escalate the conflict in one way or another but on the other hand, from the Iranian side, you have players within Iran who see this escalation as a kind of chicken game. That this is bluster. That it's an attempt to scare the Iranians...
CL: Are there people in power in Iran who could be sent off for a very long weekend with Flynt Leverett and asked to work on a "grand bargain" project in the spirit that he's suggested?
FF: I think Flynt would say yes...
CL: Well, Flynt would be there in a flash, but how about... who would the Iranians send?
FF: I'm sure there would be Iranians there. But Flynt's proposal is unacceptable because the Iranians have said from the beginning that we are ready to engage in negotiations with the US without preconditions. If there are no preconditions, we are ready to sit at the table and work things out. What the Iranians object to is that at every moment the question of negotiations with the US has come up, the US has come up with some sort of precondition that at that particular moment the Iranians could not accept. The Iranians are open, very much open -- I agree with Flynt -- to the kind of negotiations without preconditions. That doesn't mean there aren't forces in Iran that would not try to undermine...
CL: ...Flynt Leverett, you make a convincing, compelling and rather scary case for the alternative. I keep thinking 150,000 or so American troops are hostages of Iran if we are suddenly at war with that country, are they not? That seems to me one of many dangerous pieces... How did we get to this point? Why is it "war war" and not "jaw jaw"? Even in this conversation? Are they still in the mindset, in the Bush administration, that they make their own reality?
FL: I think that is fundamentally right. The president, the vice president, other important actors in this administration have acted with a relative degree of consistency based on a certain set of strategic ideas about how the Middle East works, how to exercise power effectively there. ...From my standpoint, those ideas should have been completely discredited by now, given the outcomes they effected on the ground. But they don't see it that way and they're continuing with more of the same.
CL: That's a polite way of saying they've learned nothing from experience!
FL: At best I think they'd be prepared to say that the jury is still out on the "bold experiments" that they've been trying with American foreign policy in the Middle East. I think we've gotten a fair amount of results in and they're not very edifying. You're right. The results that have come in so far inducing them to change their basic strategic framework.
BP: You look back at that comparison with the opening to China. The reason why the opening to China happened was because the US was locked in a struggle with the Soviet Union and perceived its own power to be weakening. We opened to China not because we liked them or thought they were less communist but because we needed them. We wanted their power on our side. I think this administration is still pretty convinced is a fairly clear number one, that this is a great position to be in, that we can afford to use our power to try and make the world the way we want it. After the 1991 war, the Gulf was very nearly our lake. I think they thought that finishing off Saddam would pretty much move that project along. It hasn't. And all the compromises that have been suggested with Iran, compromises with which I basically agree, still have the effect of recognizing that Iran is a genuine power in the Gulf -- if a middle power --- and a power we'll have to great with respect, a power than can continue to grow, and a power that will be able to make alliances with others outside the Gulf. That could ultimately be a problem for this hegemony in the Gulf the US is trying to establish. We're not trying to establish hegemony in the Gulf just because we like the food or because we like the weather. We're trying to establish hegemony in the Gulf because I think this administration believes, as others have in the past, that there are power assets in the Gulf that are up for grabs. They're going to be ours, or they're going to be somebody else's. This administration is hell bent for leather to be sure that they're ours. That's why I think none of these compromise proposals are flying. I think, surprising to those of us who watch the problems in Iraq, the administration doesn't really feel that beaten or that battered. If you talk to these people privately, they'll compare their situation to 1942 or 1943 in World War II. That's when the "real men" had to "stand fast" and "stay in the fight until the tide turned." That's where I think we are. I don't think this is just George Bush's strange ideas about the illegitimacy of the Iranian regime. I think this has to do with a larger understanding of power and power relationships and a desire to not only preserve America's hegemonic position in the Gulf but to improve upon it.
CL: And when these people expound that doctrine to you, what does Professor Posen respond?
BP: I think Flynt might have different views on this -- or maybe similar views! -- I tend to think the US, because it's so powerful, has a little problem. That little problem is that in international politics sometimes you can fare too well, as people say. A very great power precipitates very great wariness and very great concern on the part of others. So a great power has to walk a little softly with its big stick, as one of our presidents once advised, right? I think they've fetishized American power position and are sort of obsessed with improving it. A little diplomacy could conceivably go a long way... or it might not. But precisely the US is so capable I don't think we have to worry quite as much as these people do. So I would advise spending a little more time on diplomacy and a little bit less time on war!
CL: It's been said on this program a number of times that the US's power needs Iran's power to rescue a debacle in Iraq. Do we not?
BP: I'm not exactly sure what that means. The Iranians can conceivably nudge their clients to some kind of understanding, but the debacle that we created is the debacle we created --- and that is that 60% of the people in Iraq are Shiites and many of them are in one way or another a little big sympathetic to Iran. Not wildly sympathetic because Iran is a Shiite state and the Iranians have made friends with a good many of them, particularly the scary party in Badr. We've pounded out the Sunni Arabs who formerly -- in some sense -- ran the place, and we've basically given the store away to the Kurds. We created our own problem there and there isn't any way to walk back the cat at this point. We can't put the Sunni Arabs back in charge. We're unwilling to force the Kurds live inside a cohesive, coherent Iraq, so that conceivably you could have a Sunni-Kurdish coalition that could balance the Shias. So we've created a reality and there's really no way for the Iranians to rescue that piece [inaudible]. We've given a kind of victory to the Iranians and there's no way, in substance, for the Iranians to give that victory back to us!
CL: Can Iran live with the kind of American power that Barry Posner is talking about?
FF: Iran has lived with the American power Barry Posner is talking about! They have come to terms with the reality of the US being their neighbor. In some situations they've even tried to help that neighbor in Afghanistan and in the case of Iraq. In areas were there is not a lot of conflict -- beyond Baghdad and Anbar province -- the Iranians are also pulling in quite a bit of money, construction money. In Irbil itself, as well as other places, Iranian engineers are there as well as presumably Iranian Revolutionary Guards. I want to relate to what Barry was saying in terms of the Iranians being in the position they are because of American foreign policy. That may also give a context, I think, to this specific escalation that has just occurred -- rhetorical and operational -- as Flynt suggested. The reality is that President Bush's "way forward" -- or whatever he calls it -- is a policy of ultimately giving power to the dominant forces that the US has made dominant in Iraq -- specifically the Shiites and the Kurds. So the ultimate plan, if it works, is that the security of Iraq will be handed over to a Shiite-dominated government. Now that Shiite-dominated government, whether they like it or not, has a long history of a relationship with Iran that cannot be denied, the same kind of existing relationship to the Kurds. They do have a very good relationship with Iran. That is why, especially the Iranian hardliners, are reading the escalated [inaudible] as a mechanism to hide that reality and calm down the regional fears, whether in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and elsewhere, that indeed the future of Iraq is a fully dominated Shiite and Kurdish government. That government will rely heavily, as the Americans leave, on the support of the Iranian government. In order to calm those fears, the US has had to escalate.
CL: Barry Posner, what's your view about the dangers of a confrontation of powers and perceptions of powers between the US and Iran since the speech?
BP: There are a number of ways this can go wrong, and there doesn't have to be any conspiracy on the part of the Bush administration to use Iraq as a kind of lever to get into a war with Iran that they might want for other reasons. If they're only concerned about Iran because of the story that they tell about Iran's role inside Iraq, we can still end up in a kind of confrontation because of what people sometimes call an "escalation spiral." So we saw a couple of little episodes in the past few days where we tried to lock up some Iranian officials we thought were operatives working with the militias. But there's a terrific amount of cross-border traffic between Iran and Iraq and the Iranians probably have a good many political and intelligence officials in that traffic, and the Americans and loyalists said that we're going to be hassling that traffic because we think it's making trouble for us and making trouble for the occupation. Or "the effort to rebuild the Iraqi government," in their terms, right? So there's going to be a kind of a press. And then the question becomes what happens if you find an Iranian caravan moving across the border with weapons to be delivered to somebody on the Iraqi side. And you have a shoot-up. It's near the border. Somebody flees the other way back into Iran. Do you let it go? or do you pursue? The administration has been kind of cagey in the last few days when asked questions like "Does this involve hot pursuit?" At first one official said, "I don't know. Probably not." But then two others said, "Well, maybe." And we're not answering that question. So there doesn't have to be any conspiracy. All there has to be is a policy that says, "We're going against the Iranians in Iraq wherever we think they're a problem for us." And since there's lots of Iranians in Iraq and lots of connections growing, some completely legal and innocent, some probably not so innocent, there's plenty of chance for us to be snarling at one another.
CL: So the war starts with a whimper, not a bang.
BP: Yes. The war could start with a whimper, not a bang. But to be fair here, a lot of this depends on the Iranians. My sense is that the Iranians are going to be very cagey. They're not going to be drawn. This may not have that potential. But you still have to worry about some other things. Such as, Is the Bush administration thinking of increasing pressure at sea on Iranian trade in some way as part of the proliferation problem? That could start out as a very defensive start and search kind of thing. But every time you do one of those, there's a chance for escalation. The situation was mentioned that in 1988 when we inadvertently shot down an Iranian airliner. You can't rule out something like that happening again. Particularly if both sides are glowering at one another. So there's potential for inadvertence even before you get to the question of whether there's actual intent on the part of the Bush administration -- to try and press so hard that the Iranians are sure to respond and you get your casus belli. I'm not saying that is their intent. All I'm saying is it could be but it doesn't need to be for you to be in trouble.
CL: Flynt Leverett: What are those Iranians doing in Iraq, and how do you measure -- sum it up! -- the real risks of a shoot-'em-up between the US and Iran?
FL: I think of the Iranians as very savvy. The Shia party in Iraq spent much of the Saddam period in exile in Iran. The Iranians have extensive connections to all of these parties in many cases going back years, if not decades. They have multiple levers of influence into the Shia community in Iraq. They have multiple levers of influence into the Kurdish community in Iraq where they've also had long ties. They are going to be the dominant external player in Iraqi politics whether we like it or not. And I think we're not prepared to mold our posture around that reality and basically try and elicit the use of that Iranian influence in ways that support our objectives. We are going to be getting into an increasingly confrontational stance that I think could well end in some kind of military confrontation and it's going to be almost completely counter-productive for US interests in Iraq and the wider region.
CL: Those people in the Bush White House who bragged three or four years ago about making their own reality, do they still think they can undo centuries an intimacy of a neighbor relationship between Iran and Iraq?
FL: The short and pat answer is "yes."
CL: Can they continue to get away with it?
BP: I doubt it. But they are writing a story. You can look at the arguments in their speeches They're trying to cast this as a kind of of a Sunni-Shia/Arab-Persian conflict. They're intimating that they have to be tough vis-a-vis the Iranians because our Arab allies somehow want us to be tough, even though our Arab allies want us to be determined but careful. This was the story they're telling in public. They may believe the story in private or they may believe they can force the world into this little morality play that they've written. I don't know!
"Open Source" also provides also provides a list of recommended readings in connection with this discussion.
Katrina Vanden Heuvel, "Bush Isn’t Listening," The Nation [Online only], January 11, 2006.
Juan Cole, Did the U.S. "Just provoke Iran?," Salon, January 12, 2007: “Thursday’s raid on the Iranian consulate is more evidence that President Bush is ready to escalate the conflict.”
Jay Solomon, "Pentagon Intensifies Pressure on Iran," The Wall Street Journal, January 12, 2006: “Under one possible scenario, U.S. forces could cross into Iran or Syria in pursuit of suspected insurgents or their allies, or use alleged Iranian activities inside Iraq as a pretext for a wider assault on Iran.”
Editorial, "Squeezing Iran," The Wall Street Journal, January 12, 2006: “It’s about time, and we hope the Administration keeps showing Tehran that it will pay a price for continued subversion in Iraq.”
Seymour Hersh, "The Iran Plans," The New Yorker, April 17, 2006: “The Bush Administration, while publicly advocating diplomacy in order to stop Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapon, has increased clandestine activities inside Iran and intensified planning for a possible major air attack.”