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Gates Says Iran Factor in U.S. Troops in Iraq

by ROBERT DREYFUSS in Washington, D.C.

27 May 2011 23:18Comments

Deadline offers challenges and opportunities.

gatesgrab.jpg[ analysis ] Speaking at the American Enterprise Institute on May 24, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said that intimidating Iran is a central reason behind U.S. efforts to extend its military deployment in Iraq beyond the end of 2011. Answering a question from Fred Kagan, an AEI fellow and a neoconservative who was a principal architect of President George W. Bush's surge in Iraq in 2007 -- and who's just penned a lengthy "Iraq Threat Assessment" for AEI -- Gates described an extended U.S. military role in Iraq as reassuring to the Arab states of the Persian Gulf and troubling for Iran.

"I think it also sends a powerful signal to the region that we're not leaving, that we will continue to play a part," Gates said. "I think it would be reassuring to the Gulf States. I think it would not be reassuring to Iran, and that's a good thing. I think it would be reassuring elsewhere in the region as well and beyond the Gulf."

Inside Iraq, Gates noted, there is strong opposition to the idea of allowing American troops to stay beyond December, when they are scheduled to depart according to the terms of an agreement between the United States and Iraq signed by President Bush and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in 2008. And, again, Gates suggested that Iran is stirring up resistance to a renegotiated U.S.-Iraq military pact. "We have to realize that it is a political challenge for the Iraqis, because, whether we like it or not, we're not very popular there. And the Sadrists clearly want us out, and how much of that is the Sadrists and how much of that is the Iranians behind the Sadrists you can argue about."

Two days later, on May 26, the Sadrists organized a massive rally in Baghdad to warn Maliki not to accept the presence of American forces beyond 2011. Sadr, who spent the years from 2007 to 2011 in Iran, returned to Iraq months ago, and if he is not working on Iran's behalf he is highly dependent on Tehran for support.

So far, Maliki hasn't tipped his hand about which way he'll go, and the Iraqi leader is under heavy pressure from both Iran and the United States, and their respective allies inside Iraq. Maliki is aware a constellation of armed Shiite factions and the still active Sunni insurgents could both escalate their violence were he to support an extension. More significantly, Iran's political, economic, and cultural influence in Iraq is growing rapidly, and there's little doubt that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force has put in place substantial forces that allow Tehran to project covert power in Iraq. From street-level paramilitary groups to the prime minister's office itself, the IRGC has installed military and intelligence assets that it can activate, according to Iraqi sources and analysts on Iraq in Washington. "The prime minister knows that Iran can get rid of him whenever it wants to," says a long-time Iraq observer. "They can assassinate him."

Iran's interests in Iraq are complex. Most importantly, having fought an eight-year-long war with Iraq in the 1980s, Iran does not want Iraq to emerge as a military threat or rival. By the same token, Iran does not want Iraq to serve as a launching pad for an American attack on Iran, and although Baghdad has explicitly ruled out any use of its territory for war against its neighbor the Iranians aren't taking any chances. A weak, decentralized Iraq, without a strong air force and without the ability to project power beyond its borders, is a vital interest of Iran's. In addition, Iran's clerical leadership is not interested in allowing the more moderate clerics in Najaf and Karbala, Iraq's twin Shiite holy cities, to emerge as a power center to rival Qom. And Iran is content to allow Iraq's oil industry to fester, because a thriving Iraqi petroleum export regime is a dire threat to Iran's own exports. By some projections, Iraq's oil exports, now hovering around two million barrels a day, could triple to six million barrels a day beyond 2015, threatening Iran -- already under pressure from sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union -- with dangerous new competition, and Iran is already losing customers to Iraq. "Now that Iraq has announced its expanded reserves, there is serious concern that our standing in OPEC has been damaged," an Iranian analyst told Time magazine.

But Maliki is also under pressure from Iraqi nationalists, including Shiites, who aren't willing to allow Iraq to become a vassal of Iran's. Many Sunnis, including supporters of secular Shiite Iyad Allawi, whose party was the biggest vote-getter in the 2010 election but who has been virtually shut out of Baghdad's power elite, are prepared to endorse an extension of the U.S. military role, but they're reluctant to say so unless Maliki goes first. Many Kurds, too, including Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), see a continued U.S. presence in Iraq as a guarantee against Iraq's Arab majority, especially in Kirkuk and a host of other disputed territories along the fault line between the KRG and Arab Iraq.

So Maliki has been coy. To the Americans, he's sending signals that he's looking for a way to extend the U.S. military role. One U.S. embassy official in Iraq, echoing Gates' comment that the United States is "not very popular" in Iraq, told the Christian Science Monitor that Maliki would like to endorse an extension, but he faces strong opposition from Iraqi public opinion. Maliki gets it, the official said, "But I'm not sure the Iraqi public does."

Maliki, ever cautious, has called for a consensus behind any decision to extend the U.S. role. It's a consensus he's not likely to get, especially since it would require a two-thirds vote in the fractious Iraqi parliament. Meanwhile, earlier this month, Maliki issued a somewhat cryptic statement suggesting that the turmoil in the Arab world and the tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia might mean that Iraq might need to strengthen its cooperation with Iran. "Security, military and political cooperation between Iran and Iraq is essential, and we will certainly see the expansion of relations in these areas in the future," Maliki told Iran's Mehr News Agency. "The trend of developments in the region is giving a warning signal to us that we should increase our cooperation."

Iran hasn't been shy about proclaiming its desire for the United States to leave Iraq, and in recent days they've invited a series of Iraqi leaders to Tehran to reinforce Iran-Iraq ties. Among those leaders were the Hakim brothers, leaders of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI). ISCI was founded in the 1980s by the IRGC, drawing on Iraqi exiles and prisoners-of-war in Iran, and ever since it has been widely viewed as Iran's principal Iraqi ally. In mid-May, Ammar al-Hakim and Mohsen al-Hakim, both sons of the late Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, the commander of ISCI's paramilitary Badr Corps, visited Tehran and met with Ali Larijani, the powerful speaker of parliament, Saeed Jalili, the head of the Supreme National Security Council. Mohsen Hakim, the long-time ISCI representative in Teheran, declared: "The U.S. forces need to leave Iraq by the end of 2011." The Hakims also met with Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who said: "The occupiers of Iraq will have to leave the Iraqi quagmire sooner or later."

"Iran is playing a prominent role to prevent a new security agreement from emerging," says a new report from the Institute for the Study of War, a think tank in Washington headed by Kim Kagan, Fred Kagan's wife.

Iran's ace-in-the-hole might be its support for an array of military and paramilitary groups throughout Iraq's southern region. Although no definite connection has been established between the IRGC and such groups, organizations like Kataib Hezbollah, the League of the Righteous, Asaib Ahl ul-Haq, and the Sadr-linked Promised Day Brigades have the ability to strike at U.S. and Iraqi forces, especially along the evacuation route from Baghdad and points north to the Iraqi ports in the Persian Gulf and Kuwait.

Since late 2010, there's been a noticeable upsurge in military attacks against U.S. forces by these and other so-called "special groups." In May, five American troops were killed in three southern Iraqi provinces: Wasit, Babil, and Qadisiya. "We are extremely concerned about it," Col. Reginald Allen. Lt. Gen. Frank Helmich, the U.S. second-in-command in Iraq, told the Associated Press. "If you look into the south, what we see is very, very problematic." Attacks against Americans in that region have included clashes with paramilitary units, indirect fire such as rockets and mortars, and an uptick in the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). "The increase in attacks shows that Iranian-backed cells enjoy greater freedom of movement," says Michael Knights, an expert on southern Iraq. "They have increased confidence in their ability to engage U.S. forces in stand-up firefights in broad daylight."

It isn't likely -- not yet, anyway -- that Iran would seek a military confrontation with the United States in Iraq. Preoccupied with its own internal crisis, Iran doesn't need to provoke the United States by sponsoring an offensive against retreating U.S. forces. And in any case, Iran is patient enough to watch its own influence in Iraq rise as American influence declines with the departure of its troops. But both Iran and the Shiite special groups have an interest in reminding American forces that they're there, and even an escalation of pinprick attacks and harassment fire can allow Tehran's friends in Iraq to take credit for driving U.S. forces out of Iraq.

Iran's calculation could change if U.S.-Iran relations deteriorate sharply in the showdown over Iran's nuclear program. On the other hand, if America's now-stalled diplomatic engagement with Iran gains momentum, Tehran and Washington could find that both Iraq and Afghanistan could emerge as areas of common interest. In Afghanistan, Iran is concerned both about a resurgence of the Taliban and about drug trafficking across its border, and in Iraq neither the United States nor Iran want to see Iraq collapse once again into civil war. But, as the deadline for the withdrawal of American troops nears, it's clear that a turning point is at hand.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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