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The path out of Iraq starts with Iran

COMMENTARY | June 26, 2007

Restoring cooperation between Washington and Tehran is the single most important step that could be taken to rescue the US from its predicament in Iraq.

(Reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online - www.yaleglobal.yale.edu.)

By William E. Odom

Increasingly bogged down in the sands of Iraq, the US thrashes about looking for an honorable exit. Restoring cooperation between Washington and Tehran is the single most important step that could be taken to rescue the US from its predicament in Iraq. Understanding why requires some historical reflection.

Since the mid-1950s, US policy in the Middle East and Persian Gulf region was implicitly based on three pillars – Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia. As the British withdrew, Washington established nervous but lasting ties with Saudi Arabia. At the same time, the US built strong relations with the shah of Iran. After 1948, when it recognized the new state of Israel, the US slowly became a guarantor of that new state's survival. London's role in the entire region became marginal, especially after the Suez crisis in 1956, when President Dwight Eisenhower abruptly stopped the joint British-Israeli military operation to seize the Suez Canal.

Thus by preventing any of the three camps from overrunning the other, the US provided regional stability.

Whether American leaders employed this strategy by design or by trial and error is arguable. At the time, they were more concerned with the Soviet challenge, trying to organize the so-called "northern tier," i.e., with Turkey, Iran and Pakistan, as a barrier to Soviet influence. They probably did not foresee they had undertaken an equally demanding task of sublimating two major intra-regional quarrels, virtually irresolvable ones.

Although the Arab-Israel quarrel is well known, the Persian-Arab quarrel is poorly understood. Iran has long made claims on territories on the Arab side of the Gulf and especially with Iraq over the Shatt-al-Arab waterway at the mouth of the Tigris River. The Sunni-Shiite religious fissure reinforces Persian-Arab animosities, but no less important is the old sense of cultural superiority among the Iranians toward the Arabs.

By keeping strong diplomatic ties in all three camps, the US maintained regional stability with limited military power.

Unfortunately, this strategy collapsed with the fall of the shah in Iran in 1979. President Jimmy Carter confronted a dilemma: either to abandon the Persian Gulf region, where the Soviet Union was trying to exert more influence, or to restore the old balance by projecting considerable US military power into the region. He chose the latter, what was known as the Carter Doctrine after Soviet forces intervened in Afghanistan. The US Central Command, although it was only one aspect of Carter’s “Persian Gulf Security Framework,” became its most visible part. Started in the spring of 1979, it became operational in early 1981.

As a planner on the National Security Council (NSC) staff at the time, I soon realized that restoring ties with Iran, whether in a year or two, or a decade, or much longer, had to be the US goal. Only thus could the US lower its military costs. Moreover, Iran shared strong interests with the US that its revolutionary fervor had obscured. President Carter understood this. So did President Ronald Reagan, although his NSC staff’s attempts to re-establish informal ties were ill-designed and clumsily executed.

All subsequent presidents understood it until George W. Bush. By placing Iran on the "axis of evil" list, threatening to change its regime, he abandoned this strategy outright. Had he not done so, he might have secured tacit Iranian support for his invasion of Iraq, given Tehran's desire for revenge against Saddam Hussein's invasion of Iran in 1980.

Meetings just started between US and Iranian envoys could reestablish the basis for regional stability that existed until 1979 and may be the best hope for containing the chaos that the US invasion of Iraq is unleashing. Unless the US convinces Iran to play a cooperative role, the conflict will spread. Indeed, fear of sectarian violence spreading is why the Saudi leadership, usually supportive of Washington, recently called the US occupation of Iraq illegal.

Thus the US footing in the Arab camp has been eroding. If that continues, the cost in increased US military power to maintain Israel’s ultimate security will soon be beyond US means. A rapprochement with Iran, therefore, is the key to restoring regional stability as the US withdraws from Iraq.

Can it be reached? Yes, if the US is willing to pay the price of dropping its "all sticks" policy for stopping Iran’s nuclear-weapons program. Put plainly, the US has two choices: It can have an Iran with nuclear weapons that refuses to cooperate on many shared interests. Or it can have an Iran with nuclear weapons that is willing to cooperate.

Tehran has as much interest in stability in both Iraq and Afghanistan as does Washington. Both oppose Al Qaeda. Iran needs US oil-production technology. Greater Iranian oil and gas production benefits the US. Iran's ties with Russia are without historical precedent and strained. The US could offer more and better technologies than Russia provides Iran. Iran's record for spreading radical Islamic political movements is more limited than is generally realized. In fact, beyond Hezbollah in Lebanon, and a few terrorist groups trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and directed toward Israel and Iranian émigrés in Europe, it has behaved conservatively, especially in Central Asia and the Muslim parts of the Caucasus.

Iran was hostile to the Taliban in Afghanistan. And it does not like the radical brands of Islam that Pakistan sponsors with Arab money in Afghanistan and Central Asia.

Iran realizes that although its influence in Iraq has increased immensely, it faces limits. Once US forces leave Iraq, even Shiite Iraqis will view Persians with suspicion. Moreover, Iran – like Turkey, Iraq and Syria – does not want an independent Kurdish state. US cooperation will be required to prevent that.

Only nuclear weapons and Hezbollah remain obstacles to US-Iranian tacit cooperation. And Iran will eventually acquire nuclear weapons if it is determined to do so, although not in less than a decade. The nation is less likely to go all the way to exploding a nuclear device if it has good ties with Washington than if it does not. Improved relations with the US will inexorably reduce Iranian hostile policies toward Israel.

Iran can’t help but observe the examples that the US has set with India's and Pakistan's nuclear-weapons programs. After opposing both for years, Washington essentially embraced both countries once they acquired nuclear weapons. The lesson for both Iran and North Korea is simple: acquire nuclear weapons and the US will not only stop threatening "regime change," but will also seek good relations.

Effectively the US has demolished the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Iran might settle for a security guarantee against an Israeli nuclear strike, but its fears of Pakistani nuclear capability are probably more acute – especially as Al Qaeda, hiding in Pakistan, is dedicated to the destruction of Iran's Shiite-controlled regime and openly calls on the US to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities.

Once this is understood, the makings of a deal are straightforward. The matter of Israel and Hezbollah can probably be sublimated if Washington preemptively drops the nuclear issue, along with its threat to change the regime in Iran.

The old "double-straddle" strategy may once more be feasible, and most parties in the region will be the beneficiaries, allowing the US to begin the long road back to restoring its credibility as a regional balancer. The US has no better way out of the cul-de-sac in Iraq. And even then, the US needs European and Asian allies to help.

 (c) 2007 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

Comment from Iran
Posted by Mohammad Alireza -
02/06/2008, 05:44 PM

Tessa, it seems as if you have been listening to Michael Ledeen a bit too much. Iran is not supporting Al Quaida nor the Taliban, both radical Sunni extremist that consider the Shia as heretics.

Actually sitting in Iran and reading General Odom’s comments I’d have to say he is very much on target. Unfortunately a very small minority in Iran have been allowed to monopolize power as preparation for military confrontation with America. Even though the threat of war has greatly diminished this group is blocking the return of the reformists from participating in the election process.

Before America and Iran can sit down and talk there needs to be a Democrat in the White House and a return of the reformist to power in Iran. Otherwise the threat of war will continue to hang over the Middle East.

The Iranian people will eventually remove the Islamic dictators that are behaving like oppressors and non-Muslims, and they do not need or want the help of the Americans or any other foreign power to do this.

M. Alireza. Tehran.

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