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Bartering with Nothing

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Why a regional conference won't solve our Iraq problem.

Nov 27, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 11 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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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.