National Security Network

Secretary Rice Misreads Reality on Iran

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Report 16 December 2008

Iran Iran Condoleezza Rice iran iraq President Bush SOFA


Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice misread the situation yesterday when she claimed that Iran’s influence in Iraq was in doubt.  As numerous experts, including the Combating Counterterrorism Center at West Point, have pointed out, the Iraq War has empowered Iran both inside Iraq and across the Middle East.  Rice argued that the successful negotiation of a security agreement between the U.S. and Iraq is a sign of Iranian weakness. In reality, Iran was opposed to an agreement that would have ensured a permanent U.S. presence in Iraq – a goal the Bush administration initially sought in negotiations. But the agreement does the opposite and instead lays out a timeline for the withdrawal of American forces.

Following the overthrow of Saddam – Iran’s principal enemy – the Iranian regime was able to develop tremendous influence with the Shia-majority in Iraq. Iran now has extensive ties with the Shia-dominated Iraqi government, as well as with a variety of political parties and militias. Iran’s clout throughout the region has also grown in the wake of the war. The dramatic expansion of its nuclear capability during President Bush’s tenure, its extensive connections to Hezbollah and Hamas, and its significant supply of oil has meant that Iran is now widely perceived as the most powerful country in the region. To compare the standing of the U.S. and Iran in Iraq one only has to look at the reception of the two Presidents. While Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was able to drive through Baghdad and was warmly greeted with the pomp and circumstance of a head of state from a close ally, President Bush has had to travel secretively and upon arrival has even had shoes thrown at him.

In short, the Bush administration’s failed approach of refusing to engage Iran has empowered Iran both in Iraq and across the Middle East.  There is now a broad bipartisan consensus among foreign policy experts and senior government officials that it is time for a new approach based on tough direct engagement with Iran.

Rice’s statement contradicted by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.  In recent comments, Secretary Rice said that Iran does not have powerful influence in Iraq, as is evident from the passage of the recent security agreement, saying, "They're [Iran] in a much more difficult situation in terms of Iraq. They did everything they could to stop the strategic forces arrangement — they couldn't do it."  However, the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point said in a recent report, that “Iran has a robust program to exert influence in Iraq in order to limit American power projection capability in the Middle East, ensure the Iraqi government does not pose a threat to Iran, and build a reliable platform for projecting influence further abroad. Iran has two primary modes of influence. First, and most importantly, it projects political influence by leveraging close historical relationships with several Shi’a organizations in Iraq: the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, the Badr organization, and the Dawah political party. Second, Iran uses the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and Qods Force to provide aid in the form of paramilitary training, weapons, and equipment to various Iraqi militant groups, including Moqtada al‐Sadr’s Jaysh al‐Mahdi and the Special Group Criminals.” The Combating Terrorism Center report concludes, saying that “Iran has achieved three major accomplishments in Iraq. First, the unstable security situation and political opposition means the U.S. is not in a position to use Iraq as a platform for targeting Iran. Second, Iran’s political allies have secured high‐ranking positions in the Iraqi government. Third, the Iraqi constitution calls for a highly federalized state. Iran values a decentralized Iraq because it will be less capable of projecting power, and because Iran is primarily concerned with Iraq’s southern, oil‐rich, Shi’a‐dominated provinces.” [AP, 12/15/08, CTC, 10/13/08]

Iran’s influence has grown throughout the region. With the American invasion of Iraq and the subsequent fall of Saddam Hussein, the balance of power that had previously existed in the Persian Gulf was disrupted.  The fall of their regional rival and the rise to power in Iraq of groups linked to Tehran has increased Iran’s influence in Iraq and the region, making them the biggest winner in the war.  Ray Takeyh and Suzanne Maloney write in a new Brookings report, “Although Iraq’s Shi’i political society is hardly homogeneous, the parties that have come to power boast enduring ties to Tehran... A fragile Iraqi state with simmering sectarian conflicts and a dysfunctional central government has forfeited its long-standing role as the bulwark against Iranian influence and guarantor against any single regional power’s dominating the critical Persian Gulf.” The report adds, “Thanks to events of recent years, Tehran now has acquired the means to influence all of the region’s security dilemmas, and it appears unlikely that any of the Arab world’s crises, from the persistent instability in Iraq and Lebanon to security of the Persian Gulf, can be resolved without Iran’s acquiescence or assistance.”   [Brookings Institution, 12/08]

The Bush administration’s use of bellicose rhetoric and its refusal to negotiate with Iran has allowed Iran to move closer to obtaining a nuclear weapon.  Nearly seven years ago, the Bush administration made the decision to include Iran in the “Axis of Evil.” Since then, Iran’s influence across the Middle East has grown, and more troublingly, Iran has expanded its nuclear program under the nose of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Yet the Administration continued its “unrealistic policy of regime change.” The consequences of this approach have been troubling.  Iran has drawn closer to reaching nuclear “breakout” capability, now operating as many as 5,000 centrifuges at its central enrichment plant in Natanz.  Iran’s steady progress has led Mohammed El Baradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, to call the last five years of efforts to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions a “failure.” [President George W. Bush, 1/29/02. NSN Policy Report on Iran. AP, 11/26/08. LA Times, 12/06/08]

A bipartisan consensus has emerged on how to deal with Iran – deal with Iran. Ambassador Jim Dobbins laid out the progressive argument clearly: “I have a solution for dealing with Iran, and that is: deal with Iran.” Nick Burns, formerly the third ranking in the Bush State Department wrote in Newsweek that we should talk to adversaries, especially Iran.  He compared the situation to the Cold War saying, “Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, none of whom was often accused of being weak or naive—decided that sitting down with our adversaries made good sense for America. They all talked to Soviet leaders—men vastly more threatening to America's survival than Ahmadinejad or Chávez are now… it is crude, simplistic and wrong to charge that negotiations reflect weakness or appeasement. More often than not, they are evidence of a strong and self-confident country.” Robert Gates chaired a Council on Foreign Relations taskforce that wrote in its final report, “The United States’ long lack of direct contact with, and presence in, Iran drastically impedes its understanding of Iran’s domestic, as well as regional, dynamics. In turn, this reduces Washington’s influence across the Middle East in ways that are manifestly harmful to its ultimate interests. Direct dialogue approached candidly and without restrictions on issues of mutual concern would serve Iran’s interests. And establishing connections with Iranian society would directly benefit U.S. national objectives of enhancing the stability and security of this critical region.” In addition, Henry Kissinger, James Baker, Colin Powell, Madeleine Albright, and Warren Christopher all agreed that talking to Iran is necessary. [NSN, 9/23/08. CFR, 2004. Foreign Affairs, July/August 2007. Newsweek, 10/25/08. CNAS, 9/15/08]

Quick Hits

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A British jury convicted the doctor accused of plotting last year’s car bomb attacks in London and Glasgow Airport.

The Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at President Bush was allegedly beaten in custody.
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Human Rights Watch released a report criticizing the Iraqi justice system, saying that it has “fallen short of international and Iraqi constitutional standards of due process and has failed to provide ‘basic assurances of fairness.’”

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An Israeli court ordered Israel to revise the route of the West Bank security barrier.

Kenya announced sanctions against the Somali president.  The Somali parliament backed the prime minister
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Britain added 300 troops to its forces in Afghanistan.

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