To avoid the failure of its mission in Iraq, the George W. Bush administration has been driven to seek the help of two major enemies the Sunni insurgents and the government of Iran but both initiatives have failed to make progress because officials were not given any real negotiating authority.
U.S. officials in Baghdad are now pursuing contacts with both declared enemies, with the aim of obtaining their cooperation in overcoming otherwise seemingly insurmountable obstacles to success in Iraq. In both cases, however, the White House has been unwilling to approve concessions required to reach a deal benefiting both sides.
Administration policymakers have apparently recognized that, without the help of Iran and the Sunni insurgent leaders, it faces the likelihood of spiraling sectarian violence, undiminished Sunni armed resistance, al-Qaeda terrorist havens, and predominant Iranian political influence.
Some U.S. officials came to realize in 2005 that U.S. policy was leading to consequences that contradicted its larger interests. Its main Iraqi allies, the militant Shi’ite parties, were aligned with its main enemy, Iran, while U.S. forces were fighting against Sunni insurgent organizations whose longer-term interests lay in opposing both al-Qaeda and Iran.
Iran held a strong and possibly decisive influence in Iraq because of its close ties with militant Shi’ite political-military groups. The extent of that influence was driven home last July when Iraq’s Defense Minister Saadoun Dulaimi, on a visit to the Iranian capital, discussed possible military cooperation between the two countries, only to back away under U.S. pressure.
But U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad recognized that it might be necessary to use Iran’s influence to induce more moderate behavior by the Shi’ite parties.
Meanwhile, U.S. officials figured out, belatedly, that Sunni insurgent organizations could actually help advance U.S. interests in eliminating terrorist havens in Iraq, as well as limiting Iranian influence.
They recognized that the secular and Ba’athist Sunni insurgent leaders are strongly opposed to the Zarqawi organization’s ideology and tactics, and have even clashed with the al Qaeda-related groups on some occasions.
Furthermore, like the Sunni political leaders who ran in the December parliamentary elections, the leaders of Sunni insurgent groups are strongly opposed to Iranian influence in Iraq. Thus, the Sunnis fighting against the occupation actually represented potential allies.
Last autumn, Khalilzad pushed for significant adjustments in U.S. Iraq strategy on both Iranian and Sunni insurgent fronts, with partial success. He revealed in an interview with Newsweek in late November that he had been authorized by the White House to “engage the Iranians,” and described it as “an adjustment” in policy.
A few days later, Khalilzad told ABC News that he would talk to any insurgent groups except for the Abu Musab al-Zarqawi group and those who were still loyal to former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.
Two months later, an Iraqi delegation to Tehran carried a letter from Khalilzad proposing U.S.-Iranian cooperation on Iraq.
But Khalilzad was not allowed to negotiate with Tehran. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack pointed out to reporters that the ambassador had “a very narrow mandate and it deals specifically with issues related to Iraq.”
Iranian Foreign Minister Manoucher Mottaki immediately said Iran had no intention of negotiating with the United States. However, it is clear that Iran is willing to reach agreement on ways of stabilizing Iraq, provided a broader range of issues is also on the table.
On May 4, 2003, according to a Financial Times story 10 months later, a Swiss diplomat conveyed to the State Department an Iranian proposal for a “grand bargain” that would result in coordination of Iranian and U.S. policy toward Iraq, support for a two-state Palestinian-Israeli solution, and an end to Iran’s nuclear enrichment program in return for U.S. normalization of relations and dropping “regime change” from U.S. policy.
But neoconservatives in the administration, led by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, hoped for the collapse of the Iranian regime, and the White House rejected the proposal.
Despite the fact that he has nothing to offer the Iranians, Khalilzad continues to seek Tehran’s help in stabilizing Iraq. The London-based Al-Hayat newspaper quoted both Iranian and Iraqi sources Jan. 4 as saying that Khalilzad had sent a letter to Iran with an Iraqi defense ministry delegation proposing that the two countries coordinate policy with regard to Iraq.
The implication of the present U.S. diplomatic policy is that the White House feels it can still coerce the Iranians to do their bidding on Iraq. The Iranian government, however, clearly believes it holds the stronger bargaining chips in dealing with the United States, despite continuing U.S. military threats, because of the seriousness of the situation in Iraq.
On Jan. 14, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared that the United States deals with Iran “in a very harsh and illegal language, but ultimately they need us more than we need them.” This was apparently a reference to the U.S. need for Iran to help stabilize Iraq.
The Iranian statement, coming a few days after Shi’ite leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim decisively rejected any possibility of changes in the Iraqi constitution, suggests that Iran may have gotten its Iraqi Shi’ite allies to support its effort to pressure Washington into serious negotiations with Tehran. Such negotiations would cover both Iraq and a more fundamental bargain over the nuclear fuel cycle issue and the U.S. policy of regime change.
The administration’s overtures to the Sunni insurgents have suffered from a similar lack of decisiveness. A front-page story in the New York Times on Jan. 6 reported that U.S. officials had opened “face-to-face discussions with insurgents in the field” and were “communicating with senior insurgent leaders through intermediaries.”
The message being conveyed to those groups, according to one insurgent leader, is that Washington wanted their help in the fight against al-Qaeda. Abu Amin, a former Iraqi army officer who commands Sunni guerrillas in Yusefiya, told the Times that U.S. officials were asking, “Do you have a relationship with al-Qaeda? Can you help us attack al-Qaeda? Can you uproot al-Qaeda from Iraq?”
The report made it clear, however, that U.S. officials had no mandate to suggest any accommodation with the insurgents. The leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party, Tariq al-Hashimy, told the Times that he did not think the new U.S. contacts with insurgents had made any progress, because the U.S. would not discuss the insurgents’ demand for a timetable for withdrawal.
A subsequent article in the Times said, “American and Iraqi officials believe that the conflicts present them with one of the biggest opportunities since the insurgency burst upon Iraq nearly three years ago.”
But the story made it clear that the insurgents will not cooperate without a sign of U.S. willingness to negotiate with them on withdrawal. “It is against my beliefs to put my hand with the Americans,” one Iraqi insurgent leader said.
Despite its need for the cooperation of Sunni insurgents and Iran, the White House has not yet accepted the reality that it cannot simply command such cooperation. Given this contradiction, further “adjustments” in U.S. strategy must eventually be forthcoming.