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Cross-Border Attack on Syria Raises Iranian Eyebrows

Interviewee: Kaveh L. Afrasiabi, Former Adviser to Iran's Nuclear Negotiating Team
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
October 30, 2008

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Kaveh L. Afrasiabi, an analyst who advised Iran's nuclear negotiating team in 2004-2005, says Iran sees the reported U.S. cross-border incursion from Iraq into Syria as further reason for the pending U.S.-Iraqi Status of Forces Agreement to expressly forbid the United States from using Iraqi territory to attack another country. Currently, the draft only prohibits "offensive" operations.  Afrasiabi says: "I think that while there has been concern in Iran that this might be an indirect jab or a warning shot on a nuclear Tehran, the U.S.'s incursion in Syria, a major ally of Iran, is also a cause of concern for Iran because for one thing, the United States  is now appearing to Iran more rogue or arrogant in the region."

Over the last weekend, U.S. Special Forces went over the Syrian border from Iraq and reportedly killed an Iraqi associated with al-Qaeda. This spurred a furious reaction from Damascus, but also one from Iran. Are the Iranians concerned that the United States might attack Shite militia training bases in Iran?

From Iran's vantage point, the U.S. incursion is unacceptable, and Tehran is unconvinced by the United States official explanation of the raid and has interpered it mainly in the context of U.S. tactical moves with respect to the contentious pending Status of Forces security agreement with Iraq,  with time running out on the Bush administration to claim this as a legacy. I think that while there has been concern in Iran that this might be an indirect jab or a warning shot on a nuclear Tehran, the U.S.'s incursion in Syria, a major ally of Iran, is also a cause of concern for Iran because for one thing, the United States  is now appearing to Iran more rogue or arrogant in the region.

Iran is obviously not happy with the Status of Forces agreement with Iraq. Would Iran also like to see an immediate withdrawal of American troops from Iraq?

I think that Iran would like to see an immediate beginning of the process of withdrawal but Iranians pride themselves as political realists. They realize that there could be potential chaos in the aftermath of an ill-planned withdrawal, and as a result, there is a tendency to look with favor at those provisions of the SOF agreement that calls for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq by 2011. Not too many people in Iran are willing to hedge their bets on that, and many are convinced that the United States  intends to stay and will reneg on its pledge to leave. To Iranians, it demonstrates the U.S. determination to use 'hot pursuit' of adversaries beyond the often ill-defined borders and, second, this brings to sharper focus Iran's unhappiness with the SOF's pact's vague language that prohibits only "offensive operations" by the United States  against other countries. Iran seeks a more categorical statement without any loopholes that may be exploited by the United States in the future.

"There has been concern in Iran that [the Syrian attack] might be an indirect jab or a warning shot on a nuclear Tehran."

This is a major political issue in Iraq right now because of provincial elections set for early next year and the eventual national election. Today there's a report that the Iraqi cabinet has finally agreed on amendments to this agreement which they now want to send back to the United States. Do you think this agreement will eventually be approved by the Iraqis?

I've been talking with some people in Tehran recently; the feeling in Tehran is that indecision is the most likely outcome and that this agreement will not be signed as long as the Bush administration is in power. There is a possibility that the Iraqi government will request a short extension of the UN mandate [which ends on December 31] in order to negotiate more firmly with Bush's successor. And if that happens to be Barack Obama, there is an interventionist side to the so-called "Obama Doctrine" [not to allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons] that Iran is somewhat concerned about.

There is a feeling in Iran that Obama may in fact be able to pull off a more successful U.S. strategy in Iraq, to the detriment of Iran's interests. There is also a degree of ambivalence in Tehran vis-a-vis the agreements, whether or not it is better to see it signed by the Bush administration with a lingering credibility problem than to have a more forceful agreement by Bush's likely successor, Obama. Also the UN option is not problem-free either because it retains the present status quo of U.S. activities and the compromise inserted into the SOF agreement that basically dilutes the command and control of U.S. operations and created, at least theoretically speaking, shared authority. These are also some redeeming, positive aspects of the agreement that Iran's key Shiite allies favor. And Iran does not want to distance itself from these allies in Iraq who appear to be tilting towards endorsing it.

If you were giving advice to the next president-you seem to be assuming it's Obama. That may be the case, but let's just say Obama or John McCain-what would be your key recommendation on Iran, because both Obama and McCain seem very adamant on getting Iran to suspend its nuclear enrichment program.

Before I address the nuclear issue, I think it's important to point out that Iran is unhappy with the vague language of the SOF agreement, specifically aspects of Article 12 that prohibit the use of Iraq as a launching pad for U.S. offensive operations. Iran would like to see that language firmed up and a more robust, categorical statement inserted into the agreement that would prohibit any future use of Iraq as a military base against Iran. That's the primary concern of Iran that hopefully will be addressed by the current or the next U.S. administration. It is important to Tehran that Iran's security concerns will be addressed by the upcoming administration. Iran has concerns that the security agreement not undermine state building and the political evolution in Iraq.

Let's come back to that question about your advice for the next president.

My advice for the next president is to learn from the errors of the past and instead of continuing the failed policies of the past and on ad hoc incremental steps or relying on the fruitless pattern of coercive diplomacy, a new strategy framework for dealing with Iran should be explored whereby through the adoption of creative methods like having groups set up with experts from both sides dealing with specific policy areas there can be exploration of agreement and disagreement on various nuclear, regional security, trade, and other issues. Such a systematic effort, taking into consideration Iran's contribution to regional stability and regional cooperation and its past and present role, should be the basis for common ground and enlarging zones of agreement.

"The more prudent course of action by the United States would be to reach out to Iran, to address Iran's post 9/11 security concerns … and to encourage Iran to continue its cooperation with nuclear transparency with respect to the IAEA."

In the United States, as you well know, there is almost a universal consensus that Iran is seeking to have the ability to create nuclear weapons and its protestations to the contrary are not taken seriously. In your writings, you've denied that is Iran's intention. How can we ever prove this one way or the other as long as Iran is enriching uranium?

You know, there are other countries that are also enriching uranium that are not producing nuclear weapons. There are mechanisms in place with respect to the International Atomic Energy Agency's robust inspection regime, that can be relied on in order to verify the peacefulness of Iran's enrichment activities. Iran is entitled under the articles of the Non-Proliferation Treaty to possess the technology to produce nuclear fuel for its present and future nuclear reactors. It has made serious corrective steps to address any lingering international concerns about its program, and there's been no evidence of any diversion or smoking gun after extensive inspections of Iran's facilities by the IAEA, as reflected in the IAEA's reports. Having said that, there are several concrete options on the table, ranging from international consortiums to Iran's willingness to put a ceiling on enriching  uranium. And other proposals, such as sharing enrichment technology in Iran by putting the sensitive technology in blackboxes are there for the next U.S. president to look and explore carefully in order to reach a mutually acceptable formula for resolving the present nuclear stand-off with Iran.

Instead of coercions to force Iran to forfeit its right to possess a nuclear fuel cycle,  I think the more prudent course of action by the United States  would be to reach out to Iran, to address Iran's post-9/11 security concerns, to adopt a new strategic framework for engaging Iran and other neighbors of Iraq on regional security issues, and to encourage Iran to continue its cooperation with nuclear transparency with respect to the IAEA and perhaps to re-adopt the intrusive additional protocol and consider what is often referred to as a Grand Bargain with Iran, something that people like Flynt Leverett [a former National Security Agency official] and others have written about. I think that the evidence of Iran's interest in a comprehensive approach was already implanted in Iran's proposals that were submitted seven months ago to the Five Plus One nations [the Security Council vetoing five plus Germany]. And Iran is hopeful that the next U.S. president, if it be Obama, in particular, will give serious consideration to Iran's package of proposals which, according to Iran's leaders, contains common grounds and serious similarities with the package of proposed incentives given to Iran by the Five Plus One Nations earlier this year.

"There is a feeling in Iran that Obama may in fact be able to pull off a more successful U.S. strategy in Iraq, to the detriment of Iran's interests."

Let's talk about the political situation. In your opinion, is there any question that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will not win reelection?

My guess is that he has a tremendous chance of winning reelection because he has populist appeal among the lower-class Iranians and also successfully tapped into the nationalist reservoir for sentiments of the Iranians, chiefly on the nuclear issue, which is a popular issue with many Iranians as a question of national rights. As a result of which he has gained the confidence of Iran's spiritual leaders. His main weakness is that he has not been delivering the economic goods and right now with global recession and declining oil prices Ahmadinejad's supporters may be able to deflect attention from him to the extraneous sources of economic problems debilitating Iran's economy today. So overall I would not discount at all his chances of winning reelection. Of course this is an open question in light of the fact that the election is still several months away and we still do not know who else will enter the contest. Mehdi Karroubi has declared, and Hassan Rowhani, the former nuclear negotiator, is a possible candidate. The chances are that Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf, the current mayor of Tehran, will participate and there's also talk of former president Mohammad Khatami entering the race, so it remains to be seen.

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