The Iranian Conundrum

Peter Juul takes a look ahead at relations among the United States, Iraq, and Iran as both Middle Eastern countries struggle with internal political turbulence.

An Iranian woman uses her mobile phone in front of hundreds of thousands of supporters of leading opposition presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi on  June 15, 2009. The continuing protests in Iran over that country’s rigged June 12 presidential election will continue to influence Tehran’s foreign policy. (AP/Ben Curtis)
An Iranian woman uses her mobile phone in front of hundreds of thousands of supporters of leading opposition presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi on June 15, 2009. The continuing protests in Iran over that country’s rigged June 12 presidential election will continue to influence Tehran’s foreign policy. (AP/Ben Curtis)

Iranian opposition leader Mir Hussein Mousavi made his first public appearance today in nearly a month, while crowds of protestors apparently chanted “death to Russia”—a reference to Russia’s quick congratulations to incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and subsequent hosting of him at a summit in that country. The continuing protests in Iran over that country’s rigged June 12 presidential election will continue to influence Tehran’s foreign policy, and consequently U.S. overtures to the Iranian regime about the country’s nuclear program and its relations with Iraq.

Despite the violent repression of peaceful protests in Iran, the Obama administration has maintained prospective engagement with Tehran as a central goal of U.S. foreign policy in order to corral Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Just this week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reiterated the administration’s commitment to engagement in a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton displayed no illusions about how hard this approach will be and how little time is left to engage Iran diplomatically as the country’s nuclear program continues apace. But a key test case for both the United States and Iran will be their trilateral relationship with Iraq and their capacity to work together to stabilize that country.

The Iraqi reaction to the Iranian election and subsequent unrest was muted. While President Jalal Talabani congratulated President Ahmadinejad on his “victory” just two days after the election, on June 19 Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari expressed concern about instability in Iran during a visit to Japan. Zebari, a member of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki’s cabinet, moved Iraq closer to President Barack Obama’s statements on the situation, stating the protests were of indigenous origin and that Iraq respects the wishes of the Iranian people. In between these two statements, the Iraqi cabinet approved the opening of an Iranian consulate in the Shi’a holy city of Najaf.

Combined, these statements and actions indicate that the Iraqi government does not want to alienate any party in Iran and wishes to conduct business as usual with whoever is in charge in Tehran. Given the Iraqi government’s desire to have a constructive relationship with Iran regardless of who is in charge, the recent upheaval on the streets of Tehran and subsequent consolidation of power by Iran’s current regime led by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad may not have a large impact on the United States’ Iraq strategy. After all, under the terms of the U.S.-Iraq security agreement, Washington is still bound to withdraw its troops by the end of 2011.

But this question remains: How effective will U.S. diplomacy be in organizing regional neighbors to support Iraq as the U.S. military leaves the country? Iran’s role in this process could be vital to future political stability in the region.

Regardless of who’s in power in Tehran, Iraq and Iran will always have deep social and economic ties. But these ties do not translate into direct control. Many Iraqis remain distrustful of Iran—and vice versa—thanks to the bloody eight-year war the two countries fought in the 1980s. Certain Iraqi political parties—the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, led by Prime Minister Maliki’s main political rival Abdul Aziz al Hakim, and the two Kurdish political parties, for instance—are closer to Iran than others, but overall Iraqi political leaders will act according to their own parochial interest in getting elected.

Above all, kowtowing to Tehran is not the way to get elected in a country where memories of the Iran-Iraq war run deep. This strain of realism runs through Iraqi dealings with Iran. Iraqis know Iran is an important and influential neighbor, but they wish to maintain their own sovereignty and independence for domestic political reasons if nothing else.

As the Khamenei-Ahmadinejad regime consolidates power following the recent wave of protests, there are two main scenarios for potential talks between Tehran and Washington over Iraq. It’s likely that the Iranian regime will, for the foreseeable future, be more concerned with cleaning up its own domestic mess more than anything else. And if pro-democracy unrest continues and becomes chronic, then the regime will likely be more and more internally focused.

With a more internal focus, Tehran could be less amenable to talks with the United States, preferring to blame its domestic problems on Washington among other foreign actors. Indeed, the Iranian government is already attempting to divert responsibility for the post-election protests to foreign governments, especially Great Britain. In this scenario, the United States will likely have to adjust its regional diplomatic and security strategies to take into account Iran’s recalcitrance. The administration’s approach to Iran’s nuclear program will likely have to stiffen, but such a move must be preceded by a good-faith effort to negotiate. Tehran must be the uncompromising party on the nuclear issue, not the United States.

Amid this possible standoff, the United States would have to find new ways to construct a post-Iraq war security and diplomatic architecture, perhaps by building stronger ties between Iraq and the Arab world. Nevertheless, U.S. dialogue on Iraq with Iran at least should continue to be pursued if for no other reason than to undermine the Iranian regime’s portrait of the United States as an all-purpose boogeyman.

But there also is another possible scenario. The resources needed to complete the crackdown and secure the Iranian regime could make Khamenei more willing to cut a regional deal on Iraq. Right now, Tehran is probably comfortable with the way things are going in Iraq, which is far weaker than it was during the rule of Saddam Hussein and is now willing to cooperate with Tehran on issues of mutual interest. What’s more, Iran could see gains ahead when the United States departs Iraq in two and half years.

As a result, Khamenei and his clique could simply decide to put Iraq in the foreign policy win column and devote security force resources to suppressing internal dissent. If this scenario comes to pass, it doesn’t really change the Obama administration’s stated policy of pursuing regional diplomacy to help resolve Iraq’s conflicts and ease the U.S. military out of the country.

Of course, further political suppression in Iran will influence U.S.-Iranian relations in other ways. Given the Iranian government’s unwillingness to play by its own domestic rules, it’s difficult to determine how successful talks with the regime will be on any topic, especially the contentious nuclear issue.

Ahmadinejad’s demands for an apology from President Obama over the latter’s condemnation of the regime’s brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters and other inflammatory rhetoric indicates just how bad the prospects for constructive talks have become. But the United States should not attempt to shut Iran out of regional diplomacy and security issues on Iraq. If Tehran wants to shut itself out, that’s its choice. When the regime is ready to talk constructively about Iraq, the United States should be ready to do so.

Peter Juul is a Research Associate with the National Security team at the Center for American Progress. To read more about the Center’s policy prescriptions in the region please go to the National Security page of our website.

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Peter Juul

Former Senior Policy Analyst