Edition 10 Volume 7 - March 12, 2024

Obama's initial regional deployment: Iran and Iraq

Focus on rebuilding a strong Iraqi state -   Saad N. Jawad

Leaving Iraq without solving the problem of the Iranian domination of Iraqi politics would be a strategic mistake.

Shifting Washington's strategic focus -   Waleed Sadi

Obama has made Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan the center of his focus.

Caution required on both fronts -   Wayne White

The US withdrawal from Iraq could become quite complicated--even ugly.

Overtures toward Iran -   Sadegh Zibakalam

Neither Obama nor Clinton has made any statement that implies a demand for substantial changes by Iran.

Focus on rebuilding a strong Iraqi state
 Saad N. Jawad

Will President Barack Obama keep the promises he made during his election campaign? It may be too early to say, but some observers think he already went back on one promise in the case of Iraq. His promise to pull out early was, under pressure from the US army, changed. His decision now is to keep a bigger force in Iraq and for a longer time.

The decision was not a surprise to the anti-occupation elements in Iraq. They have always argued that the two main reasons for the occupation in the first place were oil and the security of Israel. It is impossible for the US to leave Iraq without securing these two objectives.

In terms of oil, the US has had some success, and others are in the pipeline, including the 50/50 agreements signed with the central and Kurdish federal governments. Supply routes, however, are not yet fully secure, and the unstable domestic Iraqi situation will not yet allow a guaranteed flow of oil.

The second objective is far from being achieved. True, Iraq's military capabilities and resources were either destroyed or squandered, but the subsequent chaos led to the emergence of two new challenges: Iranian power, which in the absence of an Iraqi counterbalance is left unchallenged in the region; and the emergence of fundamentalist Islamic resistance in Iraq following the Hizballah model. Indeed, Iraq, because of this senseless American adventure, has been turned into a haven for foreign fanatics.

But Iran remains the key. Any sensible observer, whether in the US or Israel, must see that the situation in Iraq is still fragile and volatile. Leaving Iraq without solving the problem of the Iranian infiltration--one might better say domination--of Iraqi politics would be a strategic and catastrophic mistake from US or Israeli perspectives.

Both Iraqis and Iranians seem very keen, each for their own reasons, to see US forces leave as soon as possible. The Iraqis think they can deal with their own problems without the patronage of the US. The Iranians are very happy with the mess created by the US invasion of Iraq that made them the second regional power in the Middle East after Israel and the only one in the Gulf.

That position will be very much enhanced if Obama keeps his promise to pursue a negotiated settlement with Iran. Most nationalist Iraqis fear that US-Iranian negotiations will concern the future of Iraq. Tehran, which has denied any interference in domestic Iraqi affairs, announced few days ago that it is ready to help the US in Iraq and Afghanistan if the US turns a blind eye to its atomic energy program, in itself an indirect admission of its involvement and influence in Iraq. The other danger of withdrawing troops without building a strong Iraqi government and a viable and secure Iraqi state is not only that it could spell the end of Iraqi independence, but that it could cause the collapse of security in the whole Gulf region, as Iranian designs become clearer.

I believe the toughest promise Obama needs to keep is to rebuild or allow the re-establishment of a strong Iraqi state. In order to do so, the new US administration needs to address the many injustices Iraq has suffered recently, including the two devastating wars waged against it by the US, the inhuman sanctions that were imposed on it for more than a decade, the unjust demarcation of its borders, the heavy and unfair compensations and reparations it was made to pay and the strengthening and encouragement of decentralized elements to defy the central authority.

In order to create a regional counterbalance to Iran's power, a strong Iraqi state is a necessity. It is evident that neither Israel nor Iraq's southern or eastern neighbors let alone the two dominant Kurdish parties in Iraqi Kurdistan want to see this happen. But such an eventuality is the only reasonable course of action for the US in the region. There are still some elements in the US who want to incite Iraq and the Gulf countries against Iran, in the hope of controlling Tehran through a series of regional wars. There are others who favor the Israeli plan to wage an air offensive against Iran. But after the catastrophic experiment in Iraq, such actions will only cause greater regional upheaval and Israel and the US will be the only losers.- Published 12/3/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Saad N. Jawad is a professor of political science at Baghdad University.

Shifting Washington's strategic focus
 Waleed Sadi

US President Barack Obama ran his campaign for the White House on a platform of sweeping change to his country's domestic and foreign policies. So far, he seems to have stuck to his guns on these promises, especially on the domestic scene, most recently by lifting the ban on stem cell research.

Obama's vision for change, however, is constrained by the severe global and US recessions and the domestic and international financial crisis that has brought down several major US and international banks. The higher than expected unemployment rate in the US and the failure of several stimulus packages to shake the US economy from its torpor have forced the new president to focus more on the domestic scene than on foreign affairs.

No wonder then that Obama has been outshone until now by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the foreign scene. Clinton has traveled the width and breadth of the world since the new administration assumed office, promoting the US foreign policy agenda. The inward looking perspective of the US president has somewhat undermined the promise of change on foreign issues.

Despite this, Obama did commit his administration to an accelerated withdrawal of US soldiers from Iraq, albeit not at the promised pace. Improvement in security conditions in Iraq has made it possible for Obama to live up to his election promise for an early withdrawal, if only to bolster the US military presence in Afghanistan.

Judging by the tone and content of the declared policies of some of Obama's key advisers who supported his bid for the White House right from the start, Obama's perspectives as far as the Middle East and southwest Asia are concerned are pretty clear. One key adviser and possible mentor for the new president on Middle East affairs is Dennis Ross who endorsed Obama's bid for the presidency of the US out of a deep conviction that Obama would be a breath of fresh air for his country.

Ross has said enough and written sufficiently on the perspectives of the new president to make us cognizant of where Obama might be heading when it comes to the Middle East and the adjacent region to the east. We know by now that Obama has made Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan the center of his focus in the Middle East and the neighboring regions. His decision to disengage from Iraq is intended first and foremost to engage in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. That's where the center of gravity has now shifted for Obama's foreign policy.

Redeployment in Iraq therefore means a more forceful US military presence in Afghanistan, where an additional 17,000 US troops will be deployed soon, especially in the south of the country where the Taliban insurgency is picking up steam. US military strategists have also convinced Obama that Afghanistan and Pakistan are two sides of one coin and are therefore organically linked as far as US efforts to defeat terrorism and extremism from that part of the world are concerned. Pakistan, US military experts have long concluded, serves as a sanctuary for Taliban militants. The Taliban cannot be defeated in Afghanistan unless these sanctuaries are eliminated or rendered useless.

Obama appointed Ambassador Richard Holbrooke as his special envoy to both Afghanistan and Pakistan out of recognition that the defeat of terrorism must be conducted on both the Pakistani and Afghani fronts. In deference to his promise to be open minded on engaging the enemy, Obama has said he would engage moderate elements within the Taliban movement, something Afghan President Hamid Karzai enthusiastically welcomed.

Yet US engagement in these nations has not diverted US attention from Iran, with its links to Middle East conflicts on the Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese fronts. Obama has long endorsed the proposition that a nuclear Iran poses a threat not only to Israel but also the US, hence the decision to deploy additional US missiles in Eastern Europe.

Obama's focus in the Middle East, for the time being at least, can therefore be classified as security-oriented rather than predicated on the advancement of peace processes between Israel and neighboring Arab countries, including of course the Palestinians. There is enough evidence to corroborate the growing conviction that the new president believes that an imposed settlement on the Arab-Israel fronts will not make sense, based on the rationale that an imposed peace is no peace at all.

Obama subscribes to the need for engagement with the parties to the Arab-Israel conflict on condition these engagements are waged without illusion, meaning without too high expectations. He seems to believe that conditions on the ground are not favorable to lasting peace deals between the parties and that this hostile environment to peace arises not only because Palestinian ranks are in disarray and the domestic Israeli scene is not much better, but also because of a lack of propitious conditions in Afghanistan and Pakistan on the one hand and Iran on the other. In other words, peace in the Middle East must be preceded by peace and stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan and the end of the Iranian threat.

True to his promise to engage even the fiercest opponents of his country, Obama is keeping the door open for direct talks with Iran not only for the sake of talking but also out of a deep conviction that the conflict with Iran is solvable. There are presidential elections in Iran in June when the incumbent Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinezhad will face stiff competition from moderate candidates and therefore may not win re-election. In addition, the leadership hierarchy in Iran is such that the center of power lies with the ayatollah system and not in the hands of the head of state. The US, meanwhile, is promoting the idea of extending a nuclear umbrella to the countries of the region in a bid to convince Tehran that the acquisition of nuclear weapons will only bring it more hardship and neither clout nor hegemony in the region.

Against this backdrop, the Middle East process can expect to "enjoy" a respite until conditions in southwest Asia are more secure and stable. However, this brings its own dangers, and it is not surprising to see that Israel has stepped up the pace of settlement building on Palestinian land to effectively foreclose any peaceful option in the area.- Published 12/3/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Waleed Sadi is a former Jordanian ambassador to Turkey and the UN and other international organizations in Geneva. He is currently a columnist for the Jordan Times and Al Rai newspapers.

Caution required on both fronts
 Wayne White

Too much focus has been placed on President Barack Obama's new withdrawal plan and too little on other aspects of the situation likely to impact on US Iraq policy. Likewise, regarding Iran, excessive attention has been accorded renewed interest in US-Iranian engagement and questions like the possible adverse impact of the appointment of Dennis Ross on that process, while neglecting other important drivers affecting this complex equation. All things considered, developments related to both Iraq and Iran could fall well below expectations.

This year will bring a series of events that could bear heavily on the Obama administration's new withdrawal plan for Iraq. One such juncture is the July referendum on last December's US-Iraq agreement: so much opposition to the agreement arose from various quarters in Iraq that the Iraqi parliament agreed to submit the pact to a popular referendum. Should the agreement fail to pass this July, the deadline for total withdrawal might move up to July 2024 from December 2024, a potentially sizeable disruption.

Of more immediate concern is the agreement's requirement that US combat troops withdraw from Iraqi cities and towns by the end of June. In mixed areas, US forces are still separating or "sitting on" populations of various ethno-sectarian communities that remain, in many cases, hostile toward or deeply suspicious of each other. No one knows to what degree this withdrawal will result in violence. Most observers apparently expect at least some, but do not know whether such outbreaks can be contained by Iraqi security forces.

The failure of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government to achieve much of the communal reconciliation so desperately needed (the main goal of the reduction in violence since mid-2007) has greatly aggravated this potentially explosive situation. And it is difficult to know whether parliamentary elections in late 2024 will foster stability and reconciliation or increased uncertainty. If, for example, the Sunni Arab under-vote in the recent provincial elections is repeated (and Sunni Arab representation in parliament is, therefore, unexpectedly low), that restive minority could become more problematic.

Obama may well be prepared to order US forces to re-enter problem areas of the country if violence were to rebound seriously. Should this happen, a question arises: when could they be removed? Unless the Iraqi government changes its tune regarding political reconciliation, in this scenario US forces could remain in such areas a long time with political disputes going unresolved. Additionally, US troops involved in any such intervention could be caught in situations in which they would be perceived as taking sides, possibly increasing US casualties once again.

Concerning Iran, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has just suggested that her Iranian counterpart attend an Afghanistan conference later this month. Yet, an Iranian presence of some significance at such gatherings also occurred during the Clinton administration, and the inclusion of Iranian officials in Afghanistan consultations took place during the early Bush years.

There has been considerable debate over the recent appointment of Dennis Ross as special Gulf and southwest Asia advisor at the State Department. But Clinton (and Obama) will likely be calling the shots on Iran, not Ross. Yet there is some reason for concern on that score, too, because Clinton herself traditionally has been inclined toward taking a fairly tough stance toward Iran.

On the Iranian side, the success of US-Iranian engagement ultimately rests with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, not the more notorious President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad. A defeat of Ahmadinezhad by reformer Mohamad Khatami later this year would be helpful, but Khamenei and others around him remain key. Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week of their uncertainty that Khamenei favored significantly improved relations with Washington. Iranian missile launches are merely efforts to ensure that Iran is not viewed as weak, but Khamenei's March 4 expression of deep skepticism over US intentions is more disturbing, casting doubt on his interest in robust US-Iranian diplomacy.

Despite the increased open-mindedness of the new US administration regarding contact with Iran, some sobering historic context must be borne in mind. When the Clinton administration last attempted engagement in the late 1990s, Khatami was already president, the overall atmospherics were even more positive and Khamenei and other conservatives felt compelled to give ground in the face of a tide of pro-reform sentiment. Most importantly, there was no thorny nuclear issue hanging over the entire process. As a result, engagement now could prove more difficult than during the failed effort of a decade ago.

So, on both the Iraqi and Iranian fronts caution is warranted with respect to expectations. The US withdrawal from Iraq could become quite complicated--even ugly. And so long as the new US administration hews to policies on Iran like retaining Iranian nuclear enrichment as a red line, keeping additional sanctions very much on the table and not clearly taking the military option off of it, the prospects for progress toward markedly improved relations with a suspicious Tehran will remain somewhat iffy.- Published 12/3/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Wayne White, former deputy director of the State Department's intelligence office for the Near East and South Asia, is an adjunct scholar at Washington's Middle East Institute.

Overtures toward Iran
 Sadegh Zibakalam

After nearly two months in office, the new US president appears to be approaching the Islamic regime in Tehran with a great deal of caution. He has been careful to distance himself from the radical stance his predecessor adopted. Gone are the days when the US president called the Islamic regime part of the "axis of evil". The new administration seems also to have departed from another principle of US policy toward Iran: for many years, successive US officials maintained that Iran must halt its uranium enrichment before any negotiations could begin with Tehran.

Moreover, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sent a somewhat cordial message to Iran inviting the Islamic regime to take part in an upcoming regional conference on the future of Afghanistan, attended by that country's neighbors and the NATO members involved militarily there. The Iranian government spokesman responded positively to the invitation stating that "the Islamic regime has always been prepared to help Afghanistan and its people in any way it could."

Additional US conditions such as those demanding an end to Iran's alleged support for "terrorism" in Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries, including support for Hamas and other militant groups, have also taken a back seat in Obama's approach toward Tehran. But does this really mean that the US has adopted an entirely new approach toward Iran? Are we to assume that the long-held strategy according to which "Washington will not tolerate a nuclear Iran" has ceased to exist and the US has succumbed to a nuclear Iran? Is Iran indeed no longer asked to stop "supporting international terrorism" before it can be allowed into the international community?

Neither President Barack Obama nor Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has made any statement that implies a demand for substantial changes by the Iranian regime. Thus, assuming that there has indeed been a substantial policy change by the new US government toward the Iranian regime, the important question is: what have been the Islamic leaders' responses to these presumed changes?

To begin with, it appears that senior Iranian leaders have avoided passing judgment on Obama and his new approach toward the Islamic regime. They have of course stated that Obama must demonstrate in practice by taking meaningful and positive steps that he is not continuing George Bush's hostile policies toward Islamic Iran. But neither Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei nor hardliner President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad has attacked Obama on the record. Nor have they rebuked or challenged him on his statements on Iran and on the Middle East in general.

Perhaps one may optimistically conclude that the Iranian leadership is prepared to give Obama time before unleashing the customary anti-US rhetoric that has characterized official Iranian policy toward the US over the past three decades. This optimism is justified by the prompt and positive response Tehran gave to Clinton's invitation to take part in the talks concerning the future of Afghanistan.

Still, Tehran is not putting all its eggs in one basket when it comes to dealing with the "Great Satan". Although senior Iranian leaders have avoided dismissing Obama, the US has been seriously challenged in other sectors of the Iranian polity.

Since the Obama presidency commenced, many Iranians have been trying hard to cultivate the idea that the US has merely changed its strategy toward Tehran. They argue that US hostility against Iran continues unabated and that the Americans are still determined to overthrow the Islamic regime. In their opinion, the strategy toward Iran adopted by George W. Bush and the neo-conservatives failed to bear fruit. After eight years of sustained economic sanctions, surrounding Islamic Iran with American armed forces and threatening Tehran with possible military strikes, Iran emerged both regionally and internationally stronger than at the start of the George W. Bush administration.

Hence, proponents of this hypothesis argue, US policymakers have been forced to change their strategy toward Islamic Iran. The new US strategy is dubbed the "soft approach" or "intelligent approach". Rather than trying to bring about a regime change in Iran through military invasion, the threat thereof or economic sanctions, the new strategy allegedly seeks to dislodge the Islamic regime from within by cultivating internal opposition to it. This is the strategy that, according to these Iranian sources, the US intelligence apparatus employed in some ex-Soviet bloc countries, resulting in so-called "velvet revolutions".

The "soft strategy" or "velvet revolution" theory has not gone unchallenged inside Iran. One Iranian academic referred to it as "a tool designed by the regime to silence its critics by linking them to a new US drive to topple the regime". The theory has however been gathering momentum and more and more Iranian hardliners argue that Obama has adopted a velvet revolution strategy against Islamic Iran.- Published 12/3/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Sadegh Zibakalam is professor of political science at Tehran University.

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