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Iran Pledges Security Assistance to Longtime Rival Iraq

November 27, 2006 at 2:56 PM EST
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GWEN IFILL: Iraq and Iran talk. We start with some background from NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels.

SPENCER MICHELS, NewsHour Correspondent: Today’s meeting in Tehran between Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran marked a new chapter between the countries. The leaders planned to discuss worsening security conditions in Iraq.

MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD, President of Iran (through translator): Based on our brotherly relationship with Iraq, we will stay beside the Iraqi nation in all fields. The present conditions that the enemies have imposed today on the Iraqi nation hurts every Iranian, every Muslim, and all the nations of the region.

SPENCER MICHELS: The two countries share a nearly 1,000-mile-long border and a history of rivalry and conflict. In 1980, Saddam Hussein invaded Iran, starting an eight-year war that left hundreds of thousands of dead, with Iran suffering the greatest losses. The war ended in a standoff.

Local residents in Tehran were hopeful today’s meeting would help stabilize Iraq.

AHMED BARATI, University Student (through translator): Definitely, this visit could be a successful one for a crisis-stricken country like Iraq. Iran has gained a lot of experience within the last years, and Iraqis can benefit from these experiences a lot.

SPENCER MICHELS: Talabani’s trip to Tehran was delayed when a curfew was imposed in Baghdad after the worst fighting yet between Shia and Sunnis. Hundreds were killed. The Tehran meeting coincides with an uptick in diplomatic efforts to address the chaos that grips Iraq.

Today, the New York Times quoted a draft report from the Iraq Study Group recommending a U.S. overture to Iran and Syria. And yesterday, King Abdullah of Jordan called for international action to prevent wider regional unrest, not only in Iraq, but in Lebanon and between Palestinians and Israelis.

KING ABDULLAH II, Jordan: And we could possibly imagine going into 2007 and having three civil wars on our hands. And therefore, it is time that we really take a strong step forward as part of the international community and make sure we avert the Middle East from a tremendous crisis that I fear and I see could possibly happen in 2007.

SPENCER MICHELS: U.S. officials have been busy in the region, too. Vice President Cheney was in Saudi Arabia this weekend, meeting with that country’s monarch and top officials of that Sunni kingdom.

And today, President Bush embarked on a trip that will take him eventually to Jordan for talks with Iraqi Prime minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Meeting in Tehran

Adeed Dawisha
Miami University, Ohio
They're hoping that if they go to Tehran, somehow the Iranians will bail them out from what essentially is a stagnant situation in which they find themselves.

GWEN IFILL: And now, some analysis of whether today's meeting in Tehran between the two longtime rivals could provide a key to a political solution in Iraq.

For that, we're joined by Adeed Dawisha, professor of political science at Miami University of Ohio. He was born and raised in Iraq and is now an American citizen.

And Karim Sadjadpour, a Tehran-based Iran analyst for the International Crisis Group, a nongovernmental organization. He holds Iranian and American passports.

Professor Dawisha, what is the best possible outcome for this meeting today between Iran and Iraq?

ADEED DAWISHA, Miami University, Ohio: I don't know that there is going to be a major outcome coming out of this. It is good for the government of Iraq. It's been completely stagnant, and this is some kind of a movement that there is some reach to this government.

They are basically, I think, clutching at straws. They're hoping that if they go to Tehran, somehow the Iranians will bail them out from what essentially is a stagnant situation in which they find themselves.

But if you ask me whether the Iranians are going to have an impact on what's going to happen in Iraq over the next six months or nine months, I personally am not very hopeful about that.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Sadjadpour, are you as pessimistic, I guess, as Professor Dawisha?

KARIM SADJADPOUR, International Crisis Group: Well, to an extent, I agree with that. On one hand, Iran was not the primary source of unrest in Iraq, if we look at Sunni insurgency, so therefore it's not going to be a panacea to bring security to the country.

But I think that, by all accounts, everyone would agree that, as a policy measure, it's going to be very difficult for the United States to continue to try to simultaneously confront Iran and stabilize Iraq, given that Iran does enjoy a substantial amount of influence over Iraq.

Gains for Iran?

Karim Sadjadpour
International Crisis Group
Now, when you talk to Iranian officials now, they say, "OK, we're ready to play a constructive role in Iraq's future. It behooves us to play a constructive role in Iraq's future, but we're not going to do it for free. There's a price tag involved."

GWEN IFILL: Let's set aside the United States' role for a moment and come back to that. Do you, Mr. Sadjadpour, think that Iran has a purpose here to be gained, something that they get out of this effort to try to extend a hand to President Talabani from Iraq?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Well, you know, when you try to examine Iranian foreign policy, see Iranian foreign policy particularly in regard to Iraq is a bi-product of U.S.-Iran relations. Meaning Iran felt like it played a very positive and constructive role in the U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and the reward for that was being placed in the axis of evil.

Now, when you talk to Iranian officials now, they say, "OK, we're ready to play a constructive role in Iraq's future. It behooves us to play a constructive role in Iraq's future, but we're not going to do it for free. There's a price tag involved."

Despite the fact that, as I said, it doesn't behoove Iran to see a civil war in Iraq, it doesn't behoove Iran to see Iraq break up into a failed state of three entities. But despite this, they say there's a price tag associated. If the United States wants to continue to agitate against us and pursue what they perceive as a regime change approach, then Iran is not willing to play a constructive role.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Dawisha, let's talk about that price tag. Who pays?

ADEED DAWISHA: Well, I'm not sure what the price tag is, but I agree that it's going to be pretty hefty. The question here is whether it's worth it. I'm not sure. What influence does Iran have with the various Shiite militant groups that are roaming the streets of Baghdad and the rest of Iraq?

You know, my reading of these groups is that they are pretty autonomous. They have local commanders, and they are localized. And they're actually financially self-sustaining.

They may have some connection with the Iranians, but it's almost like an insurance policy. It's always good, if you have a conflict in Iraq with other groups, to show that there is a state behind you. This is your insurance policy. But beyond that, I'm not sure that the Iranians do have that kind of influence to create a kind of a major change in behavior in Iraq.

GWEN IFILL: So you don't think that Iran is basically manipulating the strings, the great maestro behind the scenes in all of the sectarian violence?

ADEED DAWISHA: Not at all. I think that what's happening in Iraq is a quintessentially Iraqi struggle. It's an Iraqi struggle amongst various Iraqi groups for power and, probably more importantly, for a future vision of what Iraq should be like.

These guys are local. They are, as I said, self-sustaining financially, and in terms of the arms that they're getting. Now, they may very well be serving the interests of Iran in keeping the United States in this quagmire that we see ourselves in, but that's very different from saying that it's the Iranians who are pushing them to do that. And that makes me think: What exactly is this great influence and power that Iran has over these groups?

U.S. role in Iraq

Adeed Dawisha
Miami University, Ohio
I think there is a very good chance that one of the reasons why Talabani, President Talabani, went to Iran is to carry some kind of communication from the United States. I mean, he's probably acting as a conduit.

GWEN IFILL: So, Mr. Sadjadpour, first, do you agree that this is a quintessentially internal Iraqi-on-Iraqi struggle? And if you do, what is Iran's -- or if you don't, what is Iran's role here? What good does Iran do by having these kinds of talks?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: I would agree it is by and large an internal Iraqi issue that's going to be resolved by Iraqis, but definitely Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria are factors to be reckoned with. You know, we're talking at a time when oil is hovering between $60, $70 a barrel. So Iran is making approximately $200 million a day. There's a lot of money they can spend, petro-dollars to influence the course of events in Iraq.

I think, with particular regards to the Shiite militia and particular regards to Muqtada al-Sadr, an individual whom we at International Crisis Group have seen emerge as kind of the strongest leader, most popular leader in Iraq, I think the question to answer right now in 2006 is not how much influence Iran has over Muqtada al-Sadr, but how much influence Muqtada al-Sadr has over his own Mahdi Army.

And this goes back to the point that Professor Dawisha mentioned, that it's turning into an autonomous Iraqi issue. And these various militia have the potential to splinter into various groups which are not going to be beholden to states like Iraq and Iran and Syria, but to themselves and to their warlords.

GWEN IFILL: Well, since all of the talk in the last couple of weeks, especially anticipating what's coming out of the Iraq Study Group, Mr. Dawisha, has been about what the role Iran would play and the role Syria would play. What about the U.S. role in this? Is the U.S. secretly encouraging these independent talks and hoping to stay on the sidelines?

ADEED DAWISHA: I think there is a very good chance that one of the reasons why Talabani, President Talabani, went to Iran is to carry some kind of communication from the United States. I mean, he's probably acting as a conduit. I don't know; I'm not privy to that. But there is a good chance that he's doing this, as well as trying to shore up the image of his government.

But, again, going back to what I have been saying, I do fear that we're exaggerating the power and influence of Iran over these group, and I agree that Iran is going to extract a price for their talks, for coming into talks with the United States.

Nuclear negotiations

Karim Sadjadpour
International Crisis Group
Everything the United States does, if the U.S. wants to talk to Iran, they will say, 'Well, this is somehow a pretext to regime change approach.' If the U.S. doesn't want to talk to Iran, it's somehow a pretext for a regime change approach.

GWEN IFILL: Can I interrupt to ask you -- when you say price -- and I'm going to ask Mr. Sadjadpour for this, as well -- do you mean a price having to do with the nuclear negotiations?

ADEED DAWISHA: Yes. Yes, I think it's basically -- the nuclear issue is one of the main prices that -- one of the main issues that's going to go on the table, the whole issue of economic sanctions, if Iran does not comply, which the Iranians feel, quite rightly, that the United States is very resolute and very strident about.

I think these are the issues that the Iranians are concerned about. After all, they no longer fear the Americans in Iraq. That happened in 2003, 2004. What they see now is a very weak country that is stuck in the quagmire of Iraq.

So this is the time to extract this heavy price on the Americans. And I'm quite ready to see why we should pay this price if the Iranians really do have an influence over Iraq, but I don't see that.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Sadjadpour, is that the kind of price you're talking about, as well?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Well, it's a great question, Gwen, and it's one that really we can only speculate on. Because I think if you engage the top five Iranian officials, the five most powerful individuals in Iraq, and said, "OK, what are you looking for precisely from the United States in your nuclear posture or the negotiations over Iraq?" I think you would get five different sheets of paper as a response.

I think there are some Iranian officials who do want to have relations with the United States. There are some, I believe like President Ahmadinejad, who don't necessarily want to have relations with the United States.

And in some ways the Iranian regime is paralyzed with mistrust. Everything the United States does, if the U.S. wants to talk to Iran, they will say, "Well, this is somehow a pretext to regime change approach." If the U.S. doesn't want to talk to Iran, it's somehow a pretext for a regime change approach.

Broadly speaking, I agree with Professor Dawisha, that the issue of the nuclear issue, they will want to link that, they will want to talk about economic sanctions, they will want to talk about security measures. But when it comes to the more micro details, I think that there is no consensus in Iran.

GWEN IFILL: Well, thank you very much, Karim Sadjadpour and Adeed Dawisha.

ADEED DAWISHA: Thank you.