Just like love and marriage, Iran and Iraq go together. As much as the Obama administration might like to, there’s no having an “Iraq policy” without having a closely related “Iran policy.” As the song says, you can’t have one without the other.
One of the biggest failures of the administration so far is its seeming inability to coordinate its regional approach to the set of problems revolving around Iran, Iraq, and the Persian Gulf. At a conference on Monday at the American Enterprise Institute, Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress called this “strategic incoherence.” It’s a critical failure because stability in Iraq, now at grave risk because of electoral shenanigans by Iran’s allies in Iraqi politics, is very much dependent on Iran’s role in Iraq. For years now, I’ve been writing that Iran is using its power in Iraq as leverage in regard to U.S.-Iran relations; that is, if the United States and Iran move forward toward an understanding, implicit or explicit, Iran can use its influence to stabilize Iraq, while if the U.S.-Iran dialogue spins out of control toward a showdown, Iran can turn Iraq into a seething caldron of instability and violence.
Iraqi officials, across the political spectrum, do not want Iraq to be turned into a battlefield between Iran and the United States. Yesterday, on the sidelines of a conference on the Iraqi elections organized by the Jamestown Foundation, I interviewed a senior Iraqi government official who asked that I not mention his name. “The Iranians have ties with nearly all of the main factions in Iraq,” he said, comparing Iran’s pull on Iraq to the force of gravity. “The Iranians, because of their geopolitical position in the region, will have a strong role in Iraq. So the United States, and the international community, need to reach an understanding with Iran.” Only a U.S.-Iran agreement, he suggested, can prevent Iraq from becoming a place where the U.S.-Iran tug of war is played out, and violently. Many other Iraqi officials have said the same thing, and some of them — including those who have close ties to Iran — have repeatedly offered to help mediate between Washington and Tehran. During my two visits to Iran, in 2008 and again last year, various Iranian officials have also pointed to Iraq as a place where the United States and Iran might seek an agreement.
Yesterday, at the Jamestown Conference, I asked Colin Kahl, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, about the importance of a U.S.-Iran accord for Iraq. But Kahl, who led Barack Obama’s campaign advisory team for the Middle East, was dismissive. “It’s debatable whether a U.S.-Iran agreement is possible,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s necessary.” Now, it’s true that a deal between Washignton and Tehran is elusive, and it will be exceedingly difficult to accomplish. But without it, Iran has so much leverage in Iraq that it can make life extremely difficult as the Obama administration draws down U.S. forces between now and 2011. Kahl discounted the importance of Iran in Iraq, saying, “I dont think there’s any probability of Iraq calling under Iranian hegemony,” and adding that those who talk about Iran’s power in Iraq underestimate the power of latent Iraqi nationalism to resist Iranian encroachment. But the point is that even though Iran may not be able to achieve hegemonic control in Iraq, it can use its muscle — from covert support to violent militias to its widely acknowledged ties to many leading Iranian Shiite religious parties — to make sure that Iraq remains unstable, violent, and prone to sectarian conflicts.