Friday, August 10, 2007

Talking to Iraq's Neighbors

I think it's a good time to make a preliminary assessment of the results of reaching out and talking to Iraq's neighbors in reducing violence in the country.

So, was it a bad suggestion to talk to them?
Not completely bad, and not completely good either, pretty much like any suggestion when the situation in question is as complex as Iraq's.

The results with Iran have been so poor so far, in fact the Iranian involvement in violence has increased as statistics tell us—the American commanders here said that attacks on coalition forces by Shia militias linked to Iran represented 75 percent of total attacks in July.
Although it's still unclear whether this rise was a result of more attacks by militias or of fewer attacks by other insurgents the overall outcome is that for some reason dialogue either failed to encourage a change in Iran's policy toward Iraq or even worse giving opposite results.

On the other hand we have Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. Although Arabia was recently criticized by ambassador Khallilzad for not doing enough there are reasons to think that the three countries have to some extent contributed to the change in attitude among Sunni Arab tribes in Anbar; an effect that is slowly spreading to other regions around Baghdad, i.e. the Baghdad belts.

It is true that seeds for the awakening movement in Anbar were planted prior to the Iraq Study Group recommendations-perhaps some of you remember sheik Jad'aan and his fighters from last year-but it would be rather naïve to think that the movement gained all the sudden momentum we saw from a local initiative by some good sheiks.

In my opinion the Arab countries I mentioned have redirected much of the support they had been giving al-Qaeda and its allied tribes to the awakening sheiks and their fighters. And why wouldn't Arab countries do this!?

First Arab countries fear that Iran would control much of Iraq and they have come to realize that the only way to prevent this from happening is by allowing Iraq to become a stable state with which they can build good relations. Second their relations with America are already much better than Iran's which is seen as a common threat to them and to Iraq's stability. Add this to recent pledges with military aid in the billions and-I assume-guarantees that democracy in Iraq is not going to be a threat to their interests and we have a good package of incentives and disincentives.
This must have convinced them that they will lose if they keep putting their money on the insurgency as a way to stop the Iranian expansion.
This doesn't mean Saudi Arabia is doing all they can. After all it's the ideology they teach in their schools and mosques that keeps breeding terrorism and until they do something about that Saudi Arabia will always be responsible for creating new generations of terrorists who could strike in Iraq and elsewhere.

Then there's Syria which I'm going to leave aside right now since apparently there has been no change in its attitude in either direction. And we still haven't heard enough about meetings between American and Syrian officials, that's if there were any. Speaking of that I think the public in Iraq and America deserve to know more about what happened during previous meetings with Iran and Arab countries—I don't know about the media in America but I know our media here is not telling us any reliable information in this respect.

The question is what can be done in order to make talking to Iran at least as fruitful as talking to the Arab countries?

I don’t have an answer for this one and it looks to me that making progress on both fronts through diplomatic means is very difficult. This is because on one hand we have a group of Arab regimes whose core concern is the preservation of their regimes and whenever possible to slow down political and social reforms in their countries for as long as possible or at least make reforms a less dramatic process. These are things that America can, more or less, reassure them about since the idea of spreading democracy in the region is an America project in the first place.

But on the other hand there is a revolutionary regime whose ambitions go beyond preserving the regime to dominating the Middle East to which the road passes through Baghdad and Basra.
Today Rafsanjani complained that America was not sending "good signals" and I wonder what sort of good signals could satisfy the Mullahs; removing sanctions, allowing them to act as they please in Iraq, or maybe letting them continue their nuclear project?

My conclusion is that a diplomatic solution with Iran in the foreseeable future is very unlikely, unless the Iranians change their regime from within.
Therefore the only way I see to neutralizing Iran's interference would be to keep building the Iraqi state until it's strong enough to deal with this interference and meanwhile military operations should continue to eliminate Iran's surrogates and secure the border. This will ultimately weaken the power of their political wing as well.

Maybe this doesn’t look like a very good plan but it's better than a direct military confrontation with Iran and let's not forget that the change in power-balance on the ground could change the outcome of future negotiations, on the long run.

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