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American and Iranian interests meet in Iraq

Authors: Charles A. Kupchan, and Ray Takeyh, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
January 30, 2006
International Herald Tribune

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The crisis over Iran’s nuclear program is fast heating up. Now that Tehran is developing the technology needed to produce bomb-grade uranium, the United States and the European Union are pressing to take the issue to the UN Security Council. Iran’s hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has scoffed at the looming threat of sanctions, telling the Western powers that, “those who use harsh language against Iran need Iran 10 times more than we need them.”

Ahmadinejad’s belligerence and anti-Israel rants may call into question his judgment, but his analysis of the nuclear standoff is close to the mark—Iran does indeed hold an impressive deck of cards.

As the world’s fourth-largest exporter of oil, Iran has considerable sway over petroleum markets. Tehran also wields extensive influence over Iraq. The two countries share a long, porous border. Many of Iraq’s most influential clerics have lived or studied in Iran, giving Tehran exclusive entrée to the politicians and clerics destined to dominate Iraq’s politics.

Iran’s influence in Iraq does contribute to its intransigence, but it also provides a potential solution to the current nuclear impasse. Tehran’s nuclear ambitions represent not an unbridled quest for regional hegemony, but an anxious search for adequate deterrence against perceived external threats. From this perspective, only by addressing the issue within the broader context of regional security in the Gulf can Tehran’s nuclear program be contained.

Paradoxically, it is in Iraq, where U.S. and Iranian interests coincide, that the two countries could work together to advance regional stability. The resulting improvements in U.S.-Iranian relations and in regional security could at once defuse the nuclear crisis and advance the prospects for a stable Iraq.

Iranians are delighted that Saddam Hussein, who started the Iran-Iraq war, is languishing in prison. But now Iran itself is in America’s crosshairs, with a vast arsenal of U.S. military power parked next door. Faced with these insecurities, Tehran is unlikely to abandon its nuclear aspirations in response to the threat of economic sanctions and military strikes. Indeed, such sticks promise to be counterproductive unless complemented by an alluring carrot: the prospect of alleviating the fears stemming from Iran’s dangerous neighborhood and its longstanding duel with America. It is here that Iraq enters the picture.

The United States and Iran have many common interests in Iraq, providing a unique opportunity for Tehran and Washington to edge toward normalization. Tehran, like Washington, is keenly interested in avoiding a civil war and sustaining Iraq as a unitary state. Iranian elites support a democratic Iraq, fully aware that consensual arrangements for power-sharing among Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds are vital to Iraq’s survival.

Washington and Tehran should capitalize on their common interests in Iraq to cooperate on a host of issues. Iran can help U.S. economic reconstruction efforts through its ties to the Iraqi merchant community and its own official aid to Baghdad. As for political stability, the United States may have the boots on the ground, but America’s coercive potential must be backed up by Iran’s soft power.

Iran’s seminaries, clerics, politicians and businessmen hold powerful sway over elites in Baghdad as well as local leaders. Tehran’s interest in preventing the fragmentation of Iraq gives it reason to encourage all Shiite parties, including the independent militias, to work with the central government and resist secessionist temptations.

An Iraqi-Iranian-American dialogue could eventually provide a foundation for a new security architecture for the Gulf. A regional body could begin with confidence-building measures and arms-control pacts, and move toward collective security institutions and common markets. This endpoint is admittedly far off, but the process of getting there would help ease the geopolitical uncertainties that fuel Iran’s nuclear ambitions and Iraq’s disarray.

To pursue this agenda, Washington needs a willing partner in Tehran. Ahmadinejad is not that man. But a subtle power struggle is going on within the clerical state between the pragmatists, such as Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and the new president and his entourage of firebrands.

Ahmadinejad came into office determined to consolidate his power by rekindling revolutionary fires and ensuring Iran’s isolation. By refusing to play along and instead seeking to forge a common approach toward Iraq, the Bush administration could help tip the domestic balance in favor of the forces of moderation, paving the way for a government ready to work with Washington.

Given the Iranian president’s repellent rhetoric and political intransigence, it may seem an odd moment to advise Washington to reach out to Tehran. But doing so holds out the best hope for not only taming Iran’s nuclear aspirations, but also stabilizing Iraq.

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