The United States has a record of doing weird things to tarnish its adversaries. The famous attempt to hasten the greying of Fidel Castro’s revolutionary beard stands out in American public diplomacy. Washington just couldn’t stand Fidel’s fiery looks, which added to his charisma.
Washington beat its previous records on Iran when the Barack Obama administration officials made the accusation Thursday that Iran is helping al-Qaeda funnel cash and recruits into Pakistan for its worldwide operations. “By exposing Iran’s secret deal with al-Qaeda, allowing it to funnel funds and operatives through its territory, we are illuminating yet another aspect of Iran’s unmatched support for terrorism,” said David S. Cohen, the Treasury Department’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence.
The manner in which the accusation was made through the American media suggests that the Obama administration’s main purpose is to bring down Iran by a notch or two on the world stage. Al-Qaeda’s virulent Wahhabi, anti-Shi’ite ideology is sheer poison for Iran. Even former US commander in Afghanistan David Petraeus admitted, inter alia, in a senate foreign relations committee testimony last year that “Iranian authorities do periodically disrupt this network by detaining select al-Qaeda facilitators and operational planners.”
Why is the US is racheting up the rhetoric against Iran? A calibrated US pressure tactic against Tehran is apparent in recent days. The answer lies in the killing fields of Iraq.
The US has sought and obtained Iran’s acquiescence in its strategies in Iraq ever since the invasion in 2003. This has been a fascinating case study of ‘coercive diplomacy’. It can also be called a ‘carrot-and-stick’ approach – ‘carrot’ being US’ willingness to show restraint in pressuring Iran and ‘stick’ in not showing restraint.
Iran, on its part, is blessed with great practical experience to indulge in shadow plays with the US. No doubt, Iran wields immense influence in Iraq. But it chooses not to optimally deploy this influence. Iran can afford to do that because it knows time works in its favour, aside the factors of ethnicity, geography, culture and history that bind Iraq to it. Iran can afford to be self-assured over the unfailing friendship of the New Iraq that America created, where Shi’ite empowerment has become irreversible. Whereas, the US is painfully clawing its way up a greasy pole to get out of a cesspool.
A defining moment arises this weekend when Iraqi politicians meet in Baghdad to ponder whether they need any US military presence in their country beyond end-2011, as stipulated by the US-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement [SOFA]. To quote from the SOFA, “All United States combat forces shall withdraw from Iraqi cities, villages, and localities…no later than June 30, 2009… All the United States Forces shall withdraw from all Iraqi territory no later than December 31, 2011.”
If Lewis Carroll were alive, he could have made little Alice fall down once again into a rabbit hole and enter the fantasy world inhabited by strange, anthropomorphic beings. Amongst all the adventures in the wonderland, Alice’s advice from the Caterpillar is what comes to mind about the US’ current predicament in Iraq. Alice chanced upon the caterpillar sitting on a mushroom, smoking a hookah, and an engrossing conversation ensues about Alice’s identity crisis – she couldn’t remember a poem.
The caterpillar offered to Alice two halves of the mushroom and said one side would make her shrink smaller than ever, while the second half could cause her neck to grow so high into the trees, where a pigeon might mistake her for a serpent. Alice uses the mushroom eventually to reach a more appropriate height.
The SOFA resembles the mushroom. The US wants to retain the option to shrink its visible presence in Iraq so that it becomes affordable in America’s budgetary environment, while keeping a raised American hood in the Mesopotamian cradle of the oil-rich Muslim Middle East which will deter the pigeons on the Arab street. It is the classic dilemma of a strongman who is hated as a bully but still intensely wishes to command respect by instilling fear.
The range of emotions is simply difficult to reconcile. Which is where Iran can lend a helping hand. The paradigm looks comical. Obama, whose rhetorical flourish and eloquence is legion, has ducked under the bed cover. His last known position on Iraq was when as the newly-elected president, he vowed that he intended to uphold the deadline stipulated under the SOFA which was concluded by his ‘lame duck’ predecessor George W. Bush in November 2009 in the dying days of the presidency – and, most important, in consultation with Obama.
But increasingly, it seems Obama has since had a change of mind. After two decades of promiscuous military intervention in Iraq – starting from the First Gulf War and the so-called stability operations and the 4000 days of no-fly zones – US is loathe to wind up and depart for home. It desperately wants to retain its military presence – 10000 troops to be exact. But there is a caveat. The Iraqis should somehow request Obama so that the occupation can go under some other rubric when history gets written.
Funnily, the US is swinging from giving ‘ultimatums’ to the Iraqi leadership to virtually pleading with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Thus, in April, Admiral Mike Mullen told Maliki: “Should the Iraqi government desire to discuss the potential for some troops to stay, it needs to start soon – very soon – should there be any chance of avoiding irrevocable logistics and operational decisions we must take in the coming weeks.” But Maliki pretended he had a hearing problem and nothing much happened in the “coming weeks”.
By June, Washington was getting to be nervous and it ‘upgraded’ the communication channel. The then secretary of defence Robert Gates said impatiently, “All I can say is, from the standpoint of Iraq’s future but also our role in the region, I hope they [Iraqis] figure out a way to ask.” Those were words spoken on May 24. By July beginning, the nervousness in Washington gave way to panic. Gate’s distinguished successor Leon Panetta blurted out, “dammit, make a decision.”
The first thing Panetta did after taking charge of Pentagon was to rush to Baghdad where he held closed-door meetings with Iraqi officials to demand a decent explanation why they wouldn’t make a formal request. The Iraqis again tamely pleaded for more time. The fact of the matter is that the presence of US troops on Iraqi soil is widely unpopular and no Iraqi politician – except the Kurdish tribal chieftains who survive on US doles – has so far been willing to say publicly that the country will be better off with continued American occupation.
On Wednesday, Vice-President Joe Biden telephoned Maliki. According to the prime minister’s office in Baghdad, Maliki “stressed that the Iraqi parliament is the body that decides eventually whether the country needs the US forces to stay or not.” Maliki told Biden that “the leaders of the political blocs might be able to reach a decision on this during their next meeting.” Maliki knows it is a tough call to try to sell the idea to his country. He risks a potentially violent backlash from the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, in particular.
Enter the Iranians.
Just as when America was desperate that Iraq lacked a government for months following the last parliamentary elections and was compelled to make American backchannel requests to Iran, and Tehran stepped in and brought about proximity between Maliki and Sadr so that there could be a “pro-American” government in Baghdad, there is only one power today under the sun which can probably have the influence to assemble a coalescing of Iraqi opinion that acquiesces with US occupation – Iran.
Washington desperately wants Tehran to acquiesce in a continued US occupation of Iraq. The glaring paradox underscores the bankruptcy of the US’ Middle East policy. Despite the heavy American pressure, Syria-Iran axis remains as strong as ever. The Syrian regime is not in any hurry to abdicate and wiser counsels are prevailing over Turkey about instigating regime change in Damascus.
The “pro-West” Persian Gulf states are terrified of Shi’ite empowerment, for which they blame US misadventure in Iraq. On the other hand, Israel is hopping mad that it faces regional isolation and Obama isn’t resolute about vanquishing Iranian influence, especially in next-door Egypt, which used to be Israel’s playpen. And, of course, Israel dreads to think Iran may gain direct access to the Levant via Iraq…
Meanwhile, the clock is ticking for the United Nations General Assembly session in New York to commence in September when the Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas intends to seek recognition for the Palestinian state. And while all this unfolds, the US’ European allies are bogged down in the Libyan deserts. Obama’s Middle Eastern cup of sorrows is overflowing. Why would Iran take a sip from the chalice?
(The writer is a former diplomat.)