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U.S. Will ‘Respond Firmly’ as Iran Seeks Greater Role in Iraq

January 29, 2007 at 6:15 PM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: As the war in Iraq has continued to deteriorate, U.S. criticism of the neighboring country of Iran has only grown. The antipathy between the two nations has been fueled by heated rhetoric from Iranian President Ahmadinejad, by disputes over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and by President Bush’s recent pledge to “seek out and destroy” Iranian networks providing weapons to armed militia in Iraq.

The jabs and the counter jabs continued today, with Iran’s ambassador to Baghdad promising increased involvement, and President Bush telling National Public Radio that would be unacceptable.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: If Iran escalates its military action in Iraq to the detriment of our troops and/or innocent Iraqi people, we will respond firmly.

GWEN IFILL: But how much of this is a diplomatic dance and how much a prelude to more serious action?

To help us figure that out, we are joined by Gary Sick, acting director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University. He served on the National Security Council under Presidents Ford, Carter and Reagan. He has written two books on U.S.-Iranian relations.

And Salameh Nematt is the Washington bureau chief of the Arab daily newspaper Al-Hayat and of LBC, an Arab satellite channel based in Lebanon. He is a Jordanian citizen.

Gary Sick, we have noticed and marked this increasing rhetoric on both sides. What is it all about?

GARY SICK, Middle East Institute at Columbia University: Well, I think it’s part of a broader strategy, which actually has been under way now for several months, which involves basically the United States building a new coalition in the Middle East, between itself and Israel, and some of the conservative Arab states, the Sunni Arab states.

And the essence of that is that they are all aligned together to face the threat from Iran. And that, I think, is the centerpiece of what is really the new U.S. strategy, which has several prongs to it. But one is — it basically changes the subject from Iraq to Iran. And I think a lot of people feel more comfortable with that.

GWEN IFILL: So a lot of the suspicion in the United States, among people who pay attention to these things, has been that the United States is laying the groundwork for an invasion of Iran, something the president once again denied today. You don’t think that’s the case either?

GARY SICK: I actually do not. I think, if either the United States or Israel, for that matter, were planning a unilateral strike, a lot of things would not be happening.

For one thing, we wouldn’t be talking about it every 15 minutes publicly, because if you’re really planning a strike, you don’t want to telegraph your punches in such great detail.

So I think actually — and also I think any kind of an action in Iran would be so catastrophic, in terms of its cost, the size of the country, its nationalism, that it would actually make Iraq look simple by comparison. And I think people in Washington know that.

Iraqis caught between U.S., Iran

Salameh Nematt
Al-Hayat Newspaper
Iran obviously wants to use these militias, first, to keep the Iraqi government weak and also to counterweight the U.S. influence, maybe the presence of U.S. troops.

GWEN IFILL: Salameh Nematt, from your reporting and from what you're hearing from the region, what do you think is driving this increase in rhetoric?

SALAMEH NEMATT, Washington Bureau Chief, Al-Hayat: I think that the U.S. is coming to realize that it can no longer tolerate the situation, where the Iranians are driving the Iraqi government, rather than the U.S. alliance with that government.

So it looks like the competition is coming to a head in Baghdad. And the U.S. wants to put its foot down. It cannot actually succeed in controlling the security situation unless it can succeed in at least having the Iraqi government take a tougher stance against the Shiite militias backed by Iran.

And Iran obviously wants to use these militias, first, to keep the Iraqi government weak and also to counterweight the U.S. influence, maybe the presence of U.S. troops.

GWEN IFILL: The U.S. insists -- and the ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, to Iraq, has said that he has evidence that the kind of driving the train kind of thing you're saying involving Iran and Iraq actually exists. Do you know that there is actual evidence that the kind of weapon trading across borders and things that the president has talked about are so?

SALAMEH NEMATT: There is no question about it. There is also evidence that Iranian elements, as part of, you know, consultants and advisors to Shiite Iraqi militias in Iraq. There is no question that, in the south, there is a heavy Iranian presence and Iranian influence.

And the thing is that the Maliki government has always been walking this tightrope between appeasing the Americans on the one hand and appeasing the Iranians on the other hand. These interests continue to clash. So, whenever the Iraqi government conforms with demands by the Iranians, it suffers the wrath of the Americans, and vice versa.

So the question is, will the U.S. bring enough, basically, power to -- on the ground, to convince the Iranians that they are no match, and that the Iraqi government, of course, cooperating?

The big question is going to be, what are the new elements that are going to come into the picture now that will convince the Iranians that it's not in their interest to pursue this policy of subjugating Iraq to its own domination and influence?

Using Iran as a distraction?

Gary Sick
Columbia University
By focusing our attention on Iran, we're correct, I'm sure, that Iran is doing some nefarious things in the country, but our real problem lies elsewhere. And I see it, as I say, an effort to change the subject.

GWEN IFILL: Let's talk -- well, you just laid a lot of questions on the table. I'm going to try one of them on Gary Sick, which is this question of the tightrope that Nouri al-Maliki has to walk. Is he successfully walking it? Or is he tied a little too closely to one side or another?

GARY SICK: Well, the United States bears a great deal of responsibility for the situation we're in. We invaded Afghanistan and did away with the Taliban, which was Iran's worst enemy to the east. We then did away with Saddam Hussein, who was their worst enemy to the west.

And then we installed a Shia government in Baghdad, for the very first time in history, that was friendly to Iran. Many of the people there were actually sheltered in Iran during the Iran-Iraq war.

So we shouldn't be surprised that a close relationship has developed between these two neighboring countries. And I think Iran wants it that way. And, to some very considerable degree, the Iraqis do, too.

The other thing that I think we really have to keep remembering and reminding ourselves in this period is that the real attacks against the United States, the place where Americans are dying most frequently, is not in the Shia territories that were mentioned before, and they're not by Shia weapons.

They are by Sunni insurgents in al-Anbar province. They are, in many cases, supported militarily, financially by people, individuals at least, in the countries that are our new allies, the Saudis, the Jordanians, the Egyptians, and others. Those are the people who blow themselves up in marketplaces and so forth.

By focusing our attention on Iran, we're correct, I'm sure, that Iran is doing some nefarious things in the country, but our real problem lies elsewhere. And I see it, as I say, an effort to change the subject.

GWEN IFILL: Is the subject being changed, Salameh Nematt?

SALAMEH NEMATT: I think that the Iran subject has always been a factor. We all know that the Iranians and the Syrians have played a very important role in undermining the stability of the Iraqi government continuously.

The Iranians, from day one, they went into Iraq, they wanted to influence the reshaping of Iraq, if you like, competing with the Americans in that respect. And they allowed the Democratic process to proceed, the free elections, the constitution, et cetera, because it serves their purpose. For the first time, they're going to have a Shiite-led government in Iraq.

But when it came to a government being allied with the United States, this is where the Iranians went in to undermine the Iraqi government and to make it -- to keep it under pressure so that it won't go too much with the U.S. government.

So I think the Iranians have always been in the picture, and they have always been competing for influence in Iraq and also on the regional level.

Regional issues

Gary Sick
Columbia University
Our policy here in identifying Iran as the principal enemy... is that we are contributing to this division of the Middle East into sectarian camps of Sunnis on one side and Shia on the other.

GWEN IFILL: But what about the Sunni role that Gary Sick refers to, especially with nations like Jordan and Egypt, perhaps, and Saudi Arabia, perhaps, engaged on the other side of this?

SALAMEH NEMATT: I think I fully agree with Gary that these countries could have played a much bigger role. They haven't, because simply they did not want to give any credit to an Iraqi government that was set up by the Americans, having overthrown the Saddam Hussein regime.

These countries are not happy with the way that regime was toppled. And they feel that all this talk by the U.S. administration about democratization in the region is working towards undermining their own regions, which are undemocratic.

So I think that these governments, by standing on the sidelines, watching while the Iranians and the Americans battle it out in Iraq, they ended up shooting themselves in the foot. Now the Iranians have more influence, because the Sunni Arab influence is absent, simply because the Iraqis were not happy with the role, destructive role, I would say, from an Iraqi perspective, played by these countries that had no interest in seeing any success for democracy in Iraq

GWEN IFILL: Gary Sick, the president said today in his interview with NPR that he thinks that there are two separate issues involving Iran. One is their nuclear ambitions, and the other is this issue we're talking about here today. Do you think that there's any way that these two things can be separated?

GARY SICK: I think it's very difficult to separate them, because I think they are joined together in our policy, basically, and in the policies of many of the countries in the region.

The one thing that seems to me we should beware of, more than anything else, is that our policy here, in identifying Iran as the principal enemy, even though actually the Sunnis are playing a much more significant role, is that we are, in fact, contributing to this division of the Middle East into sectarian camps of Sunnis on one side and Shia on the other.

And the people in the Middle East may, in fact, help us do that. But it is not something -- by the time it's over, we could regret that we have moved in the direction of dividing up the Middle East this way and lending itself to the possibility of secondary wars, and fights, and civil strife that could go on.

So I think the policy is basically a short-term policy that's going to have very long-term implications.

Iran's expectations

Salameh Nematt
Al-Hayat Newspaper
The Iranians will always be there. And they feel that, once the Americans leave, the Iraqi government is going to be more willing to cooperate on matters that serve Iran's regional policies and Iran's regional domination.

GWEN IFILL: Does the U.N. Security Council have a role in brokering something here?

GARY SICK: The U.N. Security Council thus far has primarily been used to put sanctions on Iran. And, you know, it can do that, I don't see the Security Council -- the secretary-general might, in fact, have a role to play. Thus far, the U.N. has pretty much stayed out of it. They really are -- they're absent from the scene in Iraq today.

GWEN IFILL: And, Salameh Nematt, to what extent does this debate we're having in this country now about what the U.S.'s eventual role in Iraq will be, to what extent does that mean that Iran is maybe waiting for the United States to blink in any standoff about what happens next?

SALAMEH NEMATT: There is no question about it. The Iranians are betting that the Americans are going to blink. They are going to try to cut their losses and leave after this latest surge. They might give it nine months; they might give it a year or so. Eventually the Americans are leaving.

The Iranians will always be there. And they feel that, once the Americans leave, the Iraqi government is going to be more willing to cooperate on matters that serve Iran's regional policies and Iran's regional domination.

We already see what the Iranians are doing in Lebanon, where they backed Hezbollah against the democratically elected government in Lebanon. We've seen how they played a negative role in supporting Hamas against accepting any peace negotiations with Israel or even recognition of Israel.

And now they are trying to get the Iraqis to, you know, try to convince the Iraqis that they are going to be neighbors and that they better, you know, rely on them, rather than the Americans, in the long-term.

GWEN IFILL: Salameh Nematt from Al-Hayat and Gary Sick of Columbia University, thank you both very much.

SALAMEH NEMATT: Thank you.

GARY SICK: Thank you.