The Magazine

Bartering with Nothing

Recently in The Weekly Standard:
Why a regional conference won't solve our Iraq problem.

Nov 27, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 11 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

COULD A REGIONAL conference, drawing in all of Iraq's neighbors, help save us and the Iraqis from a massive civil war in Mesopotamia? It is difficult to think what the United States might offer at the negotiating table that would cause Iraq's neighbors to stop seeing it in their interest to foment trouble there. Nevertheless, the idea of a regional conference has gained currency in Washington, notably inside the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group.

The advocates, like former ambassador and ISG adviser James Dobbins of the Rand Institute, argue that even if such a conference failed to make any difference, it couldn't make the Iraq imbroglio any worse. For other participants, the desirability of regional talk is an article of faith. Former U.S. ambassador to Syria Edward Djerejian, who runs the Baker Institute in Houston and will likely be the primary drafter of the ISG's report, has long advocated closer contact between Washington and Damascus. Secretary of Defense designate Robert Gates in 2004 co-chaired a Council on Foreign Relations study of Iran with President Carter's national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, which concluded that a sustained conversation with the mullahs was long overdue. And former secretary of state James Baker and former congressman Lee Hamilton have at times expressed similar views. With the ISG report imminent, it is worth asking, Are discussions with Iraq's neighbors a good idea? Could a regional conference possibly help? Would we be worse off for trying?

Let us set aside for the moment the virulently anti-American Islamist ideology of Iran's ruling clergy and their praetorians, starting with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Let us also not inquire how much influence Iran's mullahs actually have over the Shia of Iraq, among whom a common slur is to suggest that someone has Persian blood or is an Iranian "fifth columnist." Let us put aside whether the Iraqis themselves would favor inviting foreigners to intrude further into their affairs; and, for those who care deeply about Sunni Arab participation in a new Iraq, whether legitimizing an Iranian role could possibly win Sunni friends.

Let us also not ask how much pull Saudi Arabia and Jordan have with the Sunni rejectionist camp of Baathists, Sunni supremacists, Salafi and Wahhabi fundamentalists, and martyrdom-loving foreign holy warriors. None of these takes his orders from the royal families of Jordan and Arabia. A majority of the foreign jihadists in Iraq appear to be Saudis, which makes perfect sense given the official anti-Shiite Wahhabi ideology in Saudi Arabia. If Riyadh were upset by Sunnis' killing Shiites in Iraq, and thereby provoking sectarian strife, it could have done a lot to dissuade would-be holy warriors from volunteering.

Instead, let us consider the question at the heart of any negotiation: What can be traded and bargained? What in the world can the United States give the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Alawite mafia of Bashar Assad in Damascus that they do not have already? Or to put it in the vernacular of the region: Can the Americans actually hurt me, and will they refrain from doing so? What have Damascus and Tehran lost by the turmoil in Iraq? If the violence in Iraq diminished, would they lose or gain?

For realists, the answers to all of these questions aren't good. When you're weak--when you're seen to be weak and see yourself as weak--you don't have much to offer.

Let's take Iran first, the most important player in the region. Beyond seeing Saddam go down, the most significant gain for the ruling clergy has been the radicalization of the Iraqi Shiite community. The greatest mid- to long-term threat in post-Saddam Iraq to Iran's ruling mullahs had been the possible triumph of the moderate Shia, led by the Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who carries on a political tradition that Iran's leading cleric, Ali Khamenei, detests. Clerics always think about other clerics; Iran's political priesthood has always worried first about clerical dissent and religious threats to its power. Iraq's turmoil has been very good for Khamenei and Iraq's politicized young clergy, who want to upset the traditional, moderate clergy in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf. The chaos in Iraq--the sectarian strife--has nearly neutered Sistani, who tried mightily to prevent the unleashing of Shiite revenge against the Sunni insurgency's attacks on his flock.

Emphasize "nearly." If you were the Iranian mullahs, you'd want this radicalization of the Iraqi Shia to keep going. The Iraqi Shiite community is still far from replicating the Iranian revolutionary pattern, where the Revolutionary Guards gradually replaced local militias, establishing themselves as the guarantor of the revolution's success. There are many things about Iraq that are different from revolutionary Iran, that Tehran's mullahs know are unchangeably different, but the one thing that the clerical regime surely sees as indispensable is the need to keep Iraq unsettled. With violence, Sistani and the moderate clergy will continue to collapse and the Americans will bleed.

Tied down and fearful in Iraq, the Iranians now gleefully note, the Americans will continue to lose spirit and be unable to challenge the mullahs' nuclear-weapons program and their designs in the Middle East. The Sunni-Shiite collision in Iraq doesn't fit with Tehran's ecumenical drive to become the leader of the militant Muslim world. The regime, rhetorically led by the lay but ideologically die-hard Ahmadinejad, will compensate by continuing to ratchet up its anti-American and anti-Zionist message. But Iran's ruling mullahs will not compromise the radicalization of the Shia in Iraq--a huge success for them, far greater in its potential consequences than the radicalization of the Lebanese Shia under Hezbollah--for the sake of reaching out to the Arab world's Sunni militants outraged by Iraqi Shiite attacks against Iraqi Sunnis. Since 1979, Arab Sunnis have regularly disappointed Iran's Islamists. Tehran will play for the far greater gain of destroying and then rebuilding Iraq's Shiite clergy. Although American realists cherish the belief that states hate a vacuum and disorder, stability in Iraq is the last thing Tehran wants to see now.

Let's note a historical contrast. Realists like to cite the international conference on post-Taliban Afghanistan as an instance of a positive Iranian role in the region. However, Iranians were not "cooperating" because they wanted to be helpful. In 2003, the clerical regime's fear of the United States was palpable. Iranians had watched the United States wipe out the Taliban to the east and Saddam to the west. Tehran was focused on the superpower on its doorstep and an American president who'd demonstrated, unlike his predecessors, that he would invade Middle Eastern countries that posed a threat to the United States.

They were also "helpful" because, truth be told, the Iranians really don't care strategically about their eastern neighbor. Iran's Islamic revolution has been overwhelmingly aimed westward toward the Arabs and the United States. Afghanistan has been for the clerical regime, as it was for the Shah, a backwater. What the Iranians have wanted most from post-Taliban Afghanistan is the exit from Iran of Sunni Afghan refugees, whom Iranians see as disreputable elements engaged in crime and the seduction of poor Shiite Persian women. Many realists like to use Iran's relatively benign behavior in Afghanistan as proof of Tehran's good intentions and what might be possible in Iraq. They shouldn't. For Tehran's ruling clergy, the radicalization of Iraq's Shia is worth fighting for.

So what does the United States have to offer the Iranian clergy that might tempt them to compromise their interests in Iraq? Well, there's the bomb. However, this, too, makes no sense. There is zero chance the president would allow these negotiations. Besides, an American promise not to interfere in Tehran's nuclear-weapons program would mean nothing since the mullahs now think they've already won, in great part because they believe--and the U.S. media, prominent realists, and much of the Democratic party reinforce the view--that America is too enfeebled by Iraq, too fearful of possible Iranian retaliation inside the country, for the Bush administration seriously to challenge Iran's nuclear aspirations.

With the exception of its own survival, there is nothing the clerical regime cares more about than the bomb. If the United States wanted to persuade the mullahs to stop supplying money and weaponry to radical groups in Iraq, then a true realpolitician would threaten the regime's most cherished plans--its nuclear program. Yet in the Gates-Brzezinski colloquy on Iran, Gates conceded a nuclear weapon to the clergy. This is an odd position to take before even trying to enter into "negotiations."

With the Syrians, the situation is the same. They gain by the turmoil in Iraq. And they have not been punished for giving aid to the Iraqi insurgency. Syria is right now regaining ground in Lebanon, the most important foreign-policy objective of the Assad regime, against America's wishes and the Bush administration's determined diplomacy. Undoubtedly the Assad regime believes that America's enfeeblement in Iraq has helped Syria's cause in Lebanon. The last real gasp of serious American diplomacy on Lebanon occurred in 2005 before Bashar Assad realized there was no substance to America's soft-power approach to pressuring Damascus (U.N. resolutions don't intimidate Middle Eastern dictators). More important, this diplomatic push occurred before the Bush administration realized that its counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq was failing. We are now much weaker than we were in 2005.

Doubtless the heretical Shiite-Alawite regime in Damascus, with its minority power base, would prefer not to see a Sunni-Shiite blood bath in Iraq. But the key for Alawite survival is the Iranian connection, not fraternity with Sunnis upset by Iraq, and especially not with anti-Shiite Sunni fundamentalists, whom the regime has at times energetically slaughtered. So what's left? Washington could bless the Syrian reoccupation of Lebanon, although it is difficult to believe that the president would do this. Besides, given the perception of American weakness in the region, even such a concession, so humiliating to us, would likely be of little barter value.

To negotiate successfully in the Middle East, you have to convince the denizens that you have and are willing to use power. To enter into a conference--assuming the Syrians and the Iranians would deign to participate--from a position of weakness is to guarantee that you exit weaker than when you went in. And the last thing the Bush administration needs now is to appear any more feeble. If for some reason the president feels compelled to try to convene such a conference or bilateral talks with Syria or Iran on Iraq, he would do America's diplomats a big favor by announcing first that 50,000 new troops are on their way to Mesopotamia and that we intend to slug this out until we win. Covertly but noticeably, the United States should also start high-altitude observation flights over Iran's nuclear facilities. More naval activity in the Persian Gulf would help, too. If the Syrians and the Iranians were entering negotiations with us, that's what they'd do.

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.