Stratfor on US-Iran talks re Iraq: End-game?

The United States, Iran and the Iraq Negotiation Process
By George Friedman and Reva Bhalla

At long last, the United States and Iran announced May 13 that they will engage in direct public bilateral talks over Iraq. From Washington, it was the office of Vice President Dick Cheney and the National Security Council that broke the news. From Tehran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad confirmed that the two sides will meet in Baghdad in a few weeks, most likely at the ambassadorial level. That makes these talks as officially sanctioned as they can be.

Already there have been two brief public meetings -- albeit on the sidelines of two international conferences -- between senior officials from the Iranian Foreign Ministry and the U.S. State Department in March in Baghdad and in May in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. The upcoming meeting in Baghdad, however, will be the first official bilateral meeting. After months of intense back-channel discussions, both sides have made a critical decision to bring their private negotiations into the public sphere, which means Tehran and Washington must have reached some consensus on the general framework of the negotiations on how to stabilize Iraq.

Why Now?

The U.S. political situation illustrates why both sides are willing to come to the table right now. Both Iran and the United States are closely eyeing each other's busted flushes, and they understand that time is not on their respective sides.

From the U.S. perspective, it is no secret the Iraq war has soaked up an enormous amount of U.S. military bandwidth. With the 2008 presidential election fast approaching, the Bush administration is left with little time to put a plan in action that would demonstrate some progress toward stabilizing Iraq. It has also become painfully obvious that U.S. military force alone will not succeed in suppressing Sunni insurgents and the Shiite militias enough to allow the government in Baghdad to function -- and for Washington to develop a real exit strategy. But by defiantly sending more troops to Iraq against all odds, Bush is sending a clear signal to Iran that it is not in the Iranians' interest to wait out this administration, and that the United States is prepared to use its forces to block Iranian aspirations to dominate Iraq.

From the Iranian perspective, Tehran knows it is dealing with a weak U.S. president right now, and that the next U.S. president probably will have much greater freedom of action than Bush currently does. The Iranians learned that dealing with former U.S. President Jimmy Carter would have been preferable to dealing with his successor. If you know negotiations are inevitable, it is better to negotiate with the weak outgoing president than try to extract concessions from a strong president during an increasingly complicated situation. The Iranians also know that the intensely fractious nature of Iraq's Shiite bloc -- which Iran depends on to project its power -- makes it all the more difficult for Tehran to consolidate its gains the longer Iraq remains in chaos.

U.S. and Iranian Demands

And so the time has come for both Iran and the United States to show their cards by laying out their demands for public viewing.

U.S. demands for Iraq are fairly straightforward. Our understanding of what Washington wants from Tehran regarding Iraq rests on these key points:

1. The United States wants Iraq to be a unified and independent state. In other words, Washington knows a pro-U.S. regime in Baghdad is impossible at this point, but Washington is not going to permit an Iranian-dominated state either.

2. The United States does not want jihadists operating in Iraq.

3. The United States wants to be able to withdraw from security operations, but not precipitously, thereby allaying Sunni Arab states' concerns.

Essentially, the United States is looking to create an Iraqi government that, while dominated by the Shia, remains neutral to Iran, hostile to jihadists and accommodating to mainstream Sunnis.

Iranian Demands

Iran's answers to these demands were publicly outlined in a paper at the Sharm el-Sheikh summit. The Saudi-owned, U.K.-based daily newspaper Al Hayat established the details of this paper in a May 5 article. The key points made in the presentation include the following:

1. Iran does not want an abrupt withdrawal of coalition forces from Iraq for fear this would lead to reshuffling the cards and redistributing power. Instead, there should be a fixed timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. and British forces from Iraqi cities and relocation at bases and camps inside Iraq, provided the Iraqi forces have reached the point at which they can provide security. The Iranians also stated that they would extend all possible assistance so that foreign forces could exit "honorably" from Iraq.

The U.S. decision to surge more troops into Iraq forced Iran to think twice about placing its bets on a complete U.S. withdrawal. An abrupt withdrawal without a negotiated settlement leaves more problems than Tehran can manage in terms of containing Iraq's Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish factions, and Iran does not want to be left to pick up the pieces in a country that is already on the verge of shattering along sectarian lines.

It is important to note that Iran is not calling for a complete withdrawal from Iraq, and actually acknowledges that U.S. forces will be relocated at bases and camps inside the country. Though this acts as a blocker to Iranian ambitions, the presence of U.S. bases also provides Iran with a stabilizing force placating the Sunnis and Kurds. Moreover, the Iranians are sending assurances to the United States that they are willing to cooperate so the Iraq withdrawal does not look like another Vietnam scenario for the U.S. administration to deal with at home.

2. Iran is "strongly opposed to all attempts to partition Iraq or impose a federal system that allows for regional autonomy." No region should be allowed to monopolize the resources in its territory and deprive other regions of the revenues from these resources.

Iran is essentially saying that Tehran and Washington have a common desire to see a unified Iraq. The U.S. insistence on a unified Iraq takes into account Sunni concerns of being left with the largely oil-barren central region of the country. Iran is signaling that it is not interested in seeing Iraq get split up, even if such a scenario leaves Tehran with the second-best option of securing influence in a Shiite-dominated, oil-rich southern autonomous zone.

3. Iran wants a plan, involving the Kurds and Sunnis, drawn up to root out the transnational jihadist forces allied with al Qaeda in Iraq. Sunni tribes should also assume the responsibility of confronting jihadists, whether they are Iraqi citizens or are from other Arab and Muslim countries.

In this demand, Iran and the United States share a common goal. The jihadists will use every attempt to sow sectarian strife in Iraq to prevent a political resolution from developing. The United States does not want to provide al Qaeda with a fertile base of operations, and Iran does not want its ideological nemesis gaining ground next door and working against Shiite interests.

4. Iran clearly states that the negotiations over Iraq cannot be separated from other regional issues and Tehran's nuclear file.

Stratfor has extensively discussed the nexus between Iran's nuclear agenda and its blueprint for Iraq. Iran is trying to link the nuclear issue to its dealings with the United States on Iraq as a sort of insurance policy. Iran does not want to reach an agreement on Iraq and then leave the nuclear issue to be dealt with down the road, when the United States is in a stronger position to take action against Tehran.

Iran basically is looking for a deal allowing it voluntarily to agree to freeze uranium enrichment in exchange for political concessions over Iraq, but without it having to dismantle its program. That would leave enough room to skirt sanctions and preserve the nuclear program for its long-term interests. Washington is not exactly amenable to this idea, which is what makes this a major sticking point. The United States already has made it clear that it is leaving the nuclear issue out of the Iraq discussions.

5. Iran wants a new regional formula that would make Iraq a region of influence for Tehran.

While it does not appear that Iran explicitly stated this in its presentation, a majority of participants at the conference got the message. Washington cannot afford to allow Iraq to develop into an Iranian satellite, but it is looking for assurances from Iran that a U.S. withdrawal will leave in place a neutral, albeit Shiite-dominated, government in Iraq.

Iranian Offers

The Iranian paper outlined several key concessions it would offer the United States and Iraq's Sunni faction if its demands were met.

1. Iran would help the Iraqi government rein in the armed Shiite militias and incorporate them into the state security apparatus.

2. The de-Baathification law can be revised to allow for the rehiring of former Iraqi army personnel, the bulk of whom are tied to the Sunni nationalist insurgency. However, Iran wants assurances that former Interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and other former Baathists will not be allowed to hold the position of prime minister when the time comes to replace current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

3. Iran would be willing to see fresh parliamentary elections, the formation of a new Cabinet and the amendment of the Iraqi Constitution to double the Sunni seats in parliament to 40 percent, with the Shia retaining 60 percent. Tehran has said nothing about what would be left for Kurdish political representation, however.

4. Iran has proposed the "fair" distribution of oil revenues in Iraq to satisfy all parties, especially those in "central Iraq," the Sunni-dominated, oil-deprived heart of the country.

Tehran's offers illustrate the Iranians' open acknowledgment that they are not going to be able to have their cake and eat it too. Instead, they are going to have to guarantee Iraqi neutrality by giving the Sunnis a much larger slice, leaving the Kurds to get screwed yet again.

Back in Washington, the Bush administration is looking at the Iranian withdrawal plan skeptically. Right now, the United States wants assurances that a withdrawal plan worked out with the Iranians does not simply leave a longer-term opportunity for Iran to gradually take control of Iraq once the major roadblocks are out of the way. In other words, the United States needs guarantees that, as it draws down its troop presence, the Iranians will not simply walk in. The Iranian proposal to expand Sunni representation is a direct response to these concerns, provided the relevant parties can actually deliver on their promises.

This is still highly questionable, though significant developments are already taking place that reveal the United States, Iran and various Iraqi players are making concrete moves to uphold their sides of the bargain. With Iran's blessing, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) has announced it will undergo a process of "Iraqization" -- a largely symbolic demonstration that SCIRI will not operate simply as an Iranian proxy. Meanwhile, the Sunni tribes and clans in Anbar province are increasingly broadcasting their commitment and progress in combating transnational jihadists. And finally, numerous reports in the Arab media suggest the United States would be willing to heed the Iranian demand that the Iraqi military not have offensive capabilities allowing it to threaten its Persian neighbor.

The negotiations are moving, and it is becoming more and more apparent that a consensus is emerging between Tehran and Washington over how the Iraq project should turn out. With enough serious arrestors in play for this deal to fall through, it is now up to all players -- whether those players call Washington, Tehran, Riyadh or Baghdad home -- finally to put their money where their mouths are.

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