June 16, 2008

Iran concerned about Iraq-U.S. troop agreement

This article appeared on MSNBC.com

Iran concerned about Iraq-U.S. troop agreement
Tehran views long-term presence of American forces as a threat

U.S. and Iraqi negotiators are drafting an agreement that will determine the role of American forces in the country after the current United Nations authorization expires at the end of this year. As one would expect, the most vocal critics of this agreement are Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Chairman of the Assembly of Experts Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and even the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. All have strongly condemned any agreement between Washington and Baghdad as the groundwork for the permanent presence of thousands of American forces on their western border.

It is the possible long-term presence of American troops that has the Iranians concerned – and rightfully so. From the Iranian perspective, the ability to influence events in Iraq is a zero-sum game. If the American forces are there in large numbers, it follows that the United States will exercise substantial influence over the government in Baghdad, at the expense of the Iran’s ability to influence events in Iraq. The more influence Washington has, the less Tehran has.

The Iranians view Iraq and what happens there as a vital national interest. The last thing the Iranian leadership wants is a strong American military presence next door limiting their freedom to do as they wish in the country.

Iran fought a devastating, bloody, eight year war with Iraq, and is rightfully concerned about stability in its neighboring country. Iran wants a stable Iraq to be sure, but a stable Iraq that responds to its influence, not the influence of the United States. When stability finally does come to Iraq, Iran wants to ensure that it emerges as the key power broker in the region. Since they view this as a zero-sum game, that primacy will come at the expense of the United States.

To meet its objectives, Tehran needs an acquiescent government in Baghdad. Given the demographics of Iraq, this is eminently possible. Shiites comprise about 60 percent of the population and will likely dominate the Iraqi government. Despite the losses suffered by many Shiite families in the Iran-Iraq War, most Shiites have a favorable view of Iran, one the few majority Shiite countries in the world..

What stands in the way of having an acquiescent government in Baghdad, in the Iranian view, is the presence of tens of thousands of American troops in Iraq. Prime Minister al-Maliki has recently moved against Shiite groups in al-Basrah and Baghdad’s Sadr City, demonstrating that he is not a Shiite leader, but an Iraqi leader. His willingness to take on Shiite groups, virtually all of which are supported by Iran, is bolstered by the presence of U.S. forces. In the absence of that military power, al-Maliki might be forced to accede to Iranian demands that he not pursue their proxy groups in the country.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki visited Iran to reassure the Iranians that the agreement between Iraq and the United States will not pose a threat to Iran, that American forces will be restricted to their bases unless their assistance is needed, and that Iraq will never be allowed to be used as a platform for attacks on Iran.

The United States would be wise to go along with these conditions. Maintaining a troop presence in the region is important. As long as the world’s economies run on oil, and oil flows from the Persian Gulf constitute about one quarter of that oil, it is in the national interest of the United States to have the capability to guarantee that flow. A military presence in Iraq will help maintain pressure on Iran – the country most likely and capable of disrupting oil shipments from the Gulf.

Iraq is ideally situated to provide a great location for a military presence. The country has the potential for decent infrastructure - adequate water, space, roads, rail, etc. It is the location that is important, given the proximity to two of the real "axis of evil" countries - Syria and Iran (the other is North Korea).The Iranians and Syrians might begin to feel a bit surrounded.

If Iran is concerned that we are doing something in Iraq, we’re probably doing the right thing.