Symposium | After Iraq: A Symposium

Engage Iran

By Suzanne Maloney and Ray Takeyh

Tagged DiplomacyIran

We may not leave Baghdad with Iraqis scrambling to the roof of our billion-dollar embassy and clinging to the struts of departing American helicopters, but we will likely bequeath a state incapable of protecting its people or defending its borders against even today’s threats. Ultimately, Iraq’s democratic edifice, erected at such great cost, will likely crumble from a combination of internal and external pressures, and whatever succeeds it will surely be even less appealing for the United States and for Iraq’s neighbors. We will face a profusion of trigger points and potential dangers from actors inside Iraq and across the region. Some proportion of Iraq will no doubt continue to provide hospitable sanctuary for Al Qaeda and its aspirants seeking to hone their tactics. In the meantime, the entanglement of the broader Gulf and the Middle East in Iraq’s internal turmoil is likely to worsen.

Looming over this dire scene is the specter of Iran. No piece of the
tragic puzzle that is post-Saddam Iraq evokes greater anxiety within
Washington or among its regional allies than the role and ambitions of
the Islamic Republic. Tehran has emerged if not triumphant then at
least greatly empowered by the American adventure in Iraq, and a
dramatic reversal of its fortunes, as the United States begins to
script its departure or redeployment, is highly unlikely. Under almost
any conceivable near-term scenario, the regime that is Baghdad’s
historic adversary and an implacable antagonist of the United States
will inherit the dominant role in shaping Iraq’s future and the
security environment of the Persian Gulf. And this reality is the
starting point from which a new American strategy in the region must

The centrality of Iran to Iraq’s current morass and prospective
trajectory makes it an indispensable player in fashioning an American
exit path and a viable framework for stabilizing Iraq and the region.
Iran is undoubtedly part of the problem in Iraq, but there can be no
effective, enduring solution without Tehran playing a constructive
role. Achieving Iranian cooperation will necessitate the very tool that
the Bush Administration has disdained in dealing with Iran, dialogue–in
particular the sort of quiet, sustained, pragmatic diplomacy between
Washington and Tehran that from 2001 to 2003 generated a post-Taliban
government in Afghanistan. In this way, engaging Iran to help salvage
Iraq could also offer the best platform for an incrementalist approach
to altering Iran’s more objectionable policies.

That Iran has reaped the inadvertent windfalls of regime change in
Iraq is as much a product of choice as chance. By virtue of the long
war between the two countries, the Islamic Republic was the natural
sponsor and host of most of Saddam’s opponents. Beyond that accident of
history, however, Iran has worked assiduously since the fall of the
Baathist regime to maximize its leverage in post-Saddam Iraq and hedge
its bets against an unfriendly Baghdad. As a result, it has the dubious
distinction of being the most ardent regional supporter of
American-administered Iraq, at the same time as its leadership has
fortified the networks and capabilities of the anti-American insurgents
who have reduced the Baghdad government to a brittle shell. Iran’s
primacy significantly compounds the alarms sounded by Iraq’s internal
inadequacies, and it upends the intended outcome of Operation Iraqi
Freedom and the prevailing American strategy in the Gulf.

Nevertheless, it is not axiomatic that as Tehran becomes the
regional heavyweight it will begin to play the hegemon. Iran’s massive,
multi-faceted investment in Iraq is driven by existential rather than
ideological interests, a distinction that is critical to appreciating
Iranian actions in Iraq as well as to anticipating its future course.
Iran has not sought to export its revolutionary theocracy to Iraq, nor
has it exploited its influence there to destabilize Iraq’s neighbors or
disrupt key energy markets and transportation corridors. Such restraint
should not be interpreted as evidence of Iranian benevolence–no doubt
such exploits remain gleams in the eyes of some Iranian hardliners–but
rather as confirmation that Iran’s most vital interests can in fact
override the temptations of ideology.

In Iraq, what matters most to Tehran is deterring the two
threats–one historic and one prospective–with the proven capacity to
imperil the Islamic regime: Sunni Baathists and the American military.
To ensure against the former, Iran has thrown its weight behind any and
every Shia and Kurdish faction that will accept its largesse, while
lavishing Iraq’s precarious central government with the sort of
diplomatic and financial support that U.S. diplomats routinely,
fruitlessly importune the Gulf governments to provide. Its generosity
toward Shia militants in Iraq has the added benefit for Iran’s
leadership of bloodying its other adversary, the United States.

Iran’s supporting role in the violence perpetrated by some of its
Iraqi allies invites a direct and correspondingly forceful U.S.
response, such as the efforts over the past six months to interdict
Iranian agents in Iraq. Limited, effective strikes on Iran’s most
nefarious activities may well temper Tehran’s recklessness, as Iranian
leaders want to avoid provoking a reeling American giant. But
escalating against Iran in Iraq also risks inciting a full-fledged
proxy war, which will only further inflame Iraq and the region. Iran is
likely to persist and prevail in what is effectively its home turf–the
killing fields of its own disastrous, futile war.

Engagement, then, needs to constitute the primary thrust of the
American approach to Iran. The purpose of engaging with Tehran is not
to reward its dangerous policies, but to restrain and redirect them.
There are few good alternatives to working more intensively with Iran
over Iraq. There is no other country with its interest, investments, or
leverage with key Iraqi actors; more disturbingly, its capacity for
wreaking havoc in Iraq has been as yet only partially deployed.
Developing a vehicle for serious dialogue with Iran’s leaders would be
aimed at bolstering Iran’s investment in a functional Iraqi state,
encouraging Iran to rein in its recalcitrant allies and help temper
their sectarian demands, and identifying clear red lines for Iran’s
multifarious activities in Iraq.

Developing a modus vivendi with Tehran on a post-American future for
Iraq should not undermine our broader agenda with respect to Iran’s
nuclear ambitions, support for terrorism, and human rights abuses. The
Islamic regime may well seek trade-offs in exchange for its assistance
in Iraq, but Washington will be under no obligation to provide them.
And our departure or redeployment from Iraq will at least partially
redress the disparity between Iran’s interests and actions in Iraq,
depriving Iran of its easy opportunities to bleed Washington and
forcing its leadership to confront the contradictions within their
dual-track approach to Iraq. The costs of cultivating Moqtada Al Sadr’s
militancy or funneling weaponry to any willing recipient become
manifestly higher when faced with the potential blowback from a
turbulent, disintegrating Iraq unchecked by American military presence.
Likewise, the imperatives for cooperation rise correspondingly.

Talking to Tehran has only just begun, after at least two years of
inexplicable reluctance by the Bush Administration to utilize the very
mechanism, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, it had long authorized.
Ambassador Ryan Crocker’s meeting with his Iranian counterpart is a
useful starting point, but the dialogue needs to move beyond mutual
recriminations to identification of specific expectations and areas of
common interest. To induce Iran to rein in its assistance to Sadrist
militias, Washington should dangle a confidence-building measure that
is of relatively low cost to the United States but of high value to
Tehran: a serious plan to transition responsibility for Camp Ashraf,
which houses more than 3,000 members of an Iranian terrorist group
formerly backed by Saddam Hussein, to the International Committee of
the Red Cross. If a foundation for cooperation can be established
between Washington and Tehran, other key neighbors, such as Saudi
Arabia and Kuwait, should be invited to participate in creating a
regional diplomatic platform and to avert destabilizing countermeasures
by the leading Sunni states.

For some within the Bush Administration, the notion of leaving Iraq
or talking with Tehran is an affront to America’s moral and security
responsibilities. Ironically, however, Iran is the country in the
region most supportive of Iraq’s precarious democratic institutions–and
the one that is most averse to a jury-rigged replacement. The challenge
for the United States, then, is to establish a diplomatic process that
generates region-wide buy-in to a stable, unified future for Iraq. The
broader international mechanisms established to date, particularly the
International Compact With Iraq, have been markedly less than
successful, and the Administration’s regional diplomacy initiatives,
such as the Gulf Security Dialogue, have produced little beyond a
lucrative stream of new arms sales. Regional diplomacy may not save
Iraq from the vicious cycle of sectarian violence that is consuming the
state, but it can contain some of the spillover effects and avert the
sort of regional proxy war that would produce an even more poisonous
conflagration in Iraq.

The only formula for constructing a viable way out of the sordid
mess in Iraq and a meaningful framework for security in the region
entails a concerted regional mediation effort organized by the one
party that still holds the cards in Iraq: Washington. A lessened
American presence in Iraq may just invoke a degree of caution and
responsibility on the part of Tehran, forcing the recalcitrant
theocracy to behave in a more judicious manner and open itself up to
dialogue with the United States–if Washington is willing to talk.

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Suzanne Maloney and Ray Takeyh are, respectively, a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Iran: Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic. Maloney was a member of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff from June 2005 until May 2007.

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