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Simon: Iraq Conference ‘Important Step’

Interviewee: Steven Simon, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
March 7, 2007

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Steven Simon, an expert on Middle East security affairs, and the author of a recent CFR Special Report on Iraq, says the multinational conference on Iraq security due to begin this weekend in Baghdad “is an important step.” But he warns not to expect Iran and the United States, for instance, to discuss issues beyond Iraq.

The talks “offer an opportunity for the United States and Iran to broaden their bilateral agenda and perhaps build some trust. But frankly I think that the suspicion on both sides is so deep right now that that sort of thing seems highly unlikely.”

In your Special Report on Iraq for the Council on Foreign Relations, one of your recommendations was for a stability conference involving Iran, Syria, Jordan, the UN Security Council, and other countries to discuss ways of enhancing the security of Iraq. Now, that was similar to a recommendation in the Iraq Study Group report that came out in December. The administration at first rejected any discussions with Iran and Syria, but now, surprisingly to some, has signed on to this conference, which was initiated by the Iraqis. A preliminary conference at the ambassadorial level is supposed to take place this weekend in Baghdad. Do you have any thoughts on this? Is this really an important step?

I think it is an important step. This idea has been advocated by so many people precisely because it's such a common sense idea. The security and stability problems that afflict Iraq are simply unmanageable by any one country, let alone the United States. This requires the cooperation of neighboring countries as well as other countries that don't neighbor Iraq but still have something important to contribute to that country's stability. So I see that there's an idea that it should have been implemented a long time ago. It's a terrible pity that it took so long, but better late than never.

Why do you think the administration took so long?

Well, a combination of reasons. One reason is that the administration has been reluctant since day one to share responsibilities and [sought] to control all developments in Iraq involving third countries. The administration has been willing to allow Iraq the troop contributions that other countries are willing to provide, but not to share decision-making or policy-making on Iraq with other countries. So, on that level, the administration's reluctance to get involved in an international conference up to this point, apart from the one that was held in 2004, has reflected a larger pattern of behavior on Iraq. On another level, the necessity of talking to Iran and Syria in the context of an international conference presented the administration with some vexing choices, because it regards Iran as part of the “Axis of Evil,” as it is famously known. [The administration] believes that Iran has been an important factor in the difficulty that the Iraqi government has had getting its act together and establishing control over the country, and Syria is believed to be a pawn of Iran helping to implement Iran's expansion and its goals, while itself being responsible for the murder of the very prominent Lebanese former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a matter that is subject to UN investigation at the moment. The United States just didn't want to talk to Iran and Syria, but you know they've now bitten that bullet.

There are some people saying the administration is belatedly, now, trying to generally accept the conclusions of the Iraq Study Group. I find that ironic because after the report came out, the administration showed no enthusiasm for it.

Yes. After the Iraq Study Group report was released and the president was briefed by the leaders of the study group, the White House spokesman said that “James Baker can now go back to his day job.” Yes, the White House might regret a bit its dismissal of the report and does appear to be adopting, if not embracing wholeheartedly, bits of it. That's a far cry, however, from really taking on board the underlying intention of the report, which as I read it was to provide an “exit ramp” from Iraq for the administration and the country. The “exit ramp” was out there for the administration to take and it chose not to do it. I think Washington is still far from opting to leave, but is aiming to employ some of the Study Group ideas.

Let's come back to your report. In your report, and in an interview you and I had on the day the report came out, you talked about setting a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal, twelve to eighteen months after the results of the Bush administration's “surge” are over. You said that whether it succeeds or not, it's time to really start pulling the troops out except for some auxiliary functions, like defending the airport and the Green Zone. Do you still believe that, or have you changed your view in any way?

Yes, you've got to maintain some security at the airport and access routes to the Green Zone and the Green Zone itself, in case we should come under attack. It's not clear what size force you'd need to do that, but it's a mission that would need to be done. You'd have troops in country for you know, like a year to a year and a half, during which time the residual troops, as some are being withdrawn, could be used to protect embattled or besieged minority sectarian communities in danger of displacement or used in Anbar province to assist new organizations to battle al-Qaeda extremists.

But nevertheless, since the United States is incapable of shaping Iraqi politics by military means, and the costs of staying are so high, it only makes sense to begin now to negotiate a draw down of U.S. forces with the Iraqi government.

I suspect the withdrawal question is now caught up so heavily in partisan politics in the United States that it would be very hard for this administration to do it in a way that doesn't look like they're withdrawing as part of a victory.

Well, they can wait to withdraw as part of a victory or they can withdraw in advance of a rout. That seems to me really to be the choice, because public opinion in the United States has turned very decisively against the war, and casualty tolerance is a very brutal thing under these circumstances. So, public opinion and the way in which politicians act on it could well force a withdrawal sooner rather than later, or at least sooner than the administration would like. And it makes sense given that possibility for the United States to disengage militarily from Iraq while it can still do so as a deliberate and methodical volitional act, instead of one being forced upon it.

I know in your report you say you didn't want to get into the broader questions of overall U.S. policy in the Middle East, but the administration hasn't said whether it would like to use this conference on Iraq as a way to draw the Iranians aside into a more general discussion. I mean this round is only at the ambassadorial level so you wouldn't expect too much there, but then the next round is supposed to be at the foreign minister level. Are people putting too many expectations on these talks?

Probably. On the one hand, the ministerial talks do offer an opportunity for the United States and Iran to broaden their bilateral agenda and perhaps build some trust. But frankly I think that the suspicion on both sides is so deep right now that that sort of thing seems highly unlikely. The only item that I've seen so far that the administration says it intends to discuss with Iran at the “top of their list” are the explosively formed projectile weapons that were produced in Iran and have appeared in Iraq and killed Americans. So that's going to be the West's priority in this discussion with Iran. It's the sort of thing that's best raised bilaterally and privately. Seems to me that if you raise something like that and you complain about it, you want to get some action, and you need a strategy to do so, which means in turn, some game plan with Iran, because Iran is doing what it's doing for a reason, so you need to deprive Iran of that reason. That requires some serious thinking and a diplomatic game plan, and it doesn't look as though the administration is now intending to go into the talks with that sort of purpose. It's a real problem because if they keep the agenda too narrow, then they're not going to get anywhere, but expanding the agenda just looks too fraught with failure and potential loss of face, probably for both sides. It's unlikely that the potential of this conference will be realized.

I guess the same thing holds on the U.S. efforts to mediate the Israeli-Palestinian situation, which, given the problems in the Palestinian camp and the weakness of the Israeli government, doesn't seem to be going anywhere right now.

I agree. They're not going to get anywhere on the Israeli-Palestinian front, which is a pity, but in part there's just an issue of the administration's capacity to handle all these challenges simultaneously, and this is not a criticism specifically of the Bush administration. This multitasking would probably be beyond the capacity of any administration. The Arab-Israeli piece of the puzzle is extremely complex and requires a very intense and continuous involvement.

The United States has its hands full in Iraq, obviously.

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