Date: Mon Nov 10 2008 - 23:34:16 EST
IRAN RETURNS TO THE GLOBAL STAGE
By George Friedman
After a three-month hiatus, Iran seems set to re-emerge near the top of the
U.S. agenda. Last week, the Iranian government congratulated U.S.
President-elect Barack Obama on his Nov. 4 electoral victory. This marks the
first time since the Iranian Revolution that such greetings have been sent.
While it seems trivial, the gesture is quite significant. It represents a
diplomatic way for the Iranians to announce that they regard Obama's
as offering a potential breakthrough in 30 years of U.S. relations with
At his press conference, Obama said he does not yet have a response to the
congratulatory message, and reiterated that he opposes Iran's nuclear
and its support for terrorism. The Iranians returned to criticizing Obama
this, but without their usual passion.
The Warming of U.S.-Iranian Relations
The warming of U.S.-Iranian relations did not begin with Obama's election;
began with the Russo-Georgian War. In the weeks and months prior to the
war, the United States had steadily increased tensions with Iran. This
proceeded along two tracks.
On one track, the United States pressed its fellow permanent members of the
U.N. Security Council (Russia, China, France and the United Kingdom) and
Germany to join Washington in imposing additional sanctions on Iran. U.S.
Undersecretary for Political Affairs William J. Burns joined a July 19
between EU foreign policy adviser Javier Solana and Iranian national
chief Saeed Jalili, which was read as a thaw in the American position on
The Iranian response was ambiguous, which is a polite way of saying that
wouldn't commit to anything. The Iranians were given two weeks after the
meeting to provide an answer or face new sanctions.
A second track consisted of intensified signals of potential U.S. military
action. Recall the carefully leaked report published in The New York Times
June 20 regarding Israeli preparations for airstrikes against Iran.
to U.S. -- not Israeli -- sources, the Israeli air force rehearsed for an
attack on Iran by carrying out a simulated attack over Greece and the
Mediterranean Sea involving more than 100 aircraft.
At the same time, reports circulated about Israeli planes using U.S.
in Iraq in preparation for an attack on Iran. The markets and oil prices --
a high in late July and early August -- were twitching with reports of a
potential blockade of Iranian ports, while the Internet was filled with
reports of a fleet of American and French ships on its way to carry out the
The temperature in U.S.-Iranian relations was surging, at least publicly.
Russia and Georgia went to war, and Iran suddenly dropped off the U.S. radar
screen. Washington went quiet on the entire Iranian matter, and the Israelis
declared that Iran was two to five years from developing a nuclear device
opposed to a deliverable weapon), reducing the probability of an Israeli
airstrike. From Washington's point of view, the bottom fell out of U.S.
on Iran when the Russians and Georgians opened fire on each other.
The Georgian Connection
There were two reasons for this.
First, Washington had no intention of actually carrying out airstrikes
Iran. The United States was far too tied down in other areas to do that. Nor
did the Israelis intend to attack. The military obstacles to what promised
be a multiday conventional strike against Iranian targets more than a
miles away were more than a little daunting. Nevertheless, generating that
threat of such a strike suited U.S. diplomacy. Washington wanted not only to
make Iran feel threatened, but also to increase Tehran's isolation by
the U.N. Security Council members and Germany into a solid bloc imposing
increasingly painful sanctions on Iran.
Once the Russo-Georgian War broke out, however, and the United States sided
publicly and vigorously with Georgia, the chances of the Russians
in such sanctions against Iran dissolved. As the Russians rejected the idea
increased sanctions, so did the Chinese. If the Russians and Chinese weren't
prepared to participate in sanctions, no sanctions were possible, because
Iranians could get whatever they needed from these two countries.
The second reason was more important. As U.S.-Russian relations
each side looked for levers to control the other. For the Russians, one of
best levers with the Americans was the threat of selling weapons to Iran.
the U.S. point of view, not only would weapon sales to Iran make it more
difficult to attack Iran, but the weapons would find their way to Hezbollah
other undesirable players. The United States did not want the Russians
weapons, but the Russians were being unpredictable. Therefore, while the
Russians had the potential to offer Iran weapons, the United States wanted
reduce Iran's incentive for accepting those weapons.
The Iranians have a long history with the Russians, including the
northern Iran by Russia during World War II. The Russians are close to Iran,
and the Americans are far away. Tehran's desire to get closer to the
is therefore limited, although under pressure Iran would certainly purchase
weapons from Russia, just as it has purchased nuclear technology in the
With the purchase of advanced weapons would come Russian advisers --
that might not be to Iran's liking unless it were absolutely necessary.
The United States did not want to give Iran a motive for closing an arms
with Russia, leaving aside the question of whether the Russian threat to
weapons was anything more than a bargaining chip with the Americans. With
Washington rhetorically pounding Russia, pounding Iran at the same time
sense. For one thing, the Iranians, like the Russians, knew the Americans
spread too thin. Also, the United States suddenly had to reverse its
on Iran. Prior to Aug. 8, Washington wanted the Iranians to feel embattled;
after Aug. 8, the last thing the United States wanted was for the Iranians
feel under threat. In a flash, Iran went from being the most important
the table to being barely mentioned.
Iran and a Formal U.S. Opening
Different leaks about Iran started to emerge. The Bush administration posed
idea of opening a U.S. interest section in Iran, the lowest form of
recognition (but diplomatic recognition nonetheless). This idea had been
floated June 23, but now it was being floated after the Russo-Georgian War.
initial discussion of the interest section seemed to calm the atmosphere,
the idea went away.
Then, just before U.S. presidential elections in November, the reports
re-emerged, this time in the context of a new administration. According to
leaks, U.S. President George W. Bush intended to open diplomatic relations
Iran after the election regardless of who won, in order to free the next
president from the burden of opening relations with Iran. In other words, if
Obama won, Bush was prepared to provide cover with the American right on an
opening to Iran.
If we take these leaks seriously -- and we do -- this means Bush has
that a formal opening to Iran is necessary. Indeed, the Bush administration
been operating on this premise ever since the U.S. troop surge in Iraq. Two
things were clear to the Bush administration in 2007: first, that the United
States had to make a deal with the Iraqi Sunni nationalist insurgents; and
second, that while the Iranians might not be able to impose a pro-Iranian
government in Baghdad, Tehran had enough leverage with enough Iraq Shiite
factions to disrupt Iraq, and thus disrupt the peace process. Therefore,
without an understanding with Iran, a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq would be
difficult and full of potentially unpleasant consequences, regardless of
in the White House.
The issue of Iran's nuclear program was part of this negotiation. The
were less interested in building a nuclear weapon than in having the United
States believe they were building one. As Tehran learned by observing the
reaction to North Korea, Washington has a nuclear phobia. Tehran thus hoped
could use the threat of a nuclear program to force the United States to be
forthcoming on Iranian interests in Iraq, a matter of fundamental
Iran. At the same time, the United States had no appetite for bombing Iran,
used the threat of attacks as leverage to get the Iranians to be more
The Iranians in 2007 withdrew their support from destabilizing elements in
like Muqtada al-Sadr, contributing to a dramatic decline in violence in
In return, Iran wanted to see an American commitment to withdraw from Iraq
set timetable. Washington was unprepared to make that commitment. Current
over a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between Washington and Baghdad
around just this issue. The Iraqi Shia are demanding a fixed timetable,
the Kurds and Sunnis -- not to mention foreign governments like Saudi
seem to be more comfortable with a residual U.S. force in place to guarantee
The Shia are clearly being influenced by Iran on the SOFA issue, as their
interests align. The Sunnis and Kurds, however, fear this agreement. In
view, the withdrawal of U.S. forces on a fixed timetable will create a
in Iraq that the Iranians eventually will fill, at the very least by having
government in Baghdad that Tehran can influence. The Kurds and Sunnis are
deeply concerned about their own security in such an event. Therefore, the
is not moving toward fruition.
The Iraqi Stumbling Block
There is a fundamental issue blocking the agreement. The United States has
agreed to an Iraqi government that is neutral between Washington and Tehran.
That is a major defeat for the United States, but an unavoidable one under
circumstances. But a U.S. withdrawal without a residual force means that the
Iranians will be the dominant force in the region, and this is not something
United States -- along with the Iraqi Kurds and Sunnis, the Saudis and
-- wants. Therefore the SOFA remains in gridlock, with the specter of
Russian-Iranian ties complicating the situation.
Obama's position during the election was that he favored a timed U.S.
withdrawal from Iraq, but he was ambiguous about whether he would want a
residual force kept there. Clearly, the Shia and Iranians are more favorably
inclined toward Obama than Bush because of Obama's views on a general
withdrawal by a certain date and the possibility of a complete withdrawal.
means that Obama must be extremely careful politically. The American
right is wounded but far from dead, and it would strike hard if it appeared
Obama was preparing to give Iran a free hand in Iraq.
One possible way for Obama to proceed would be to keep Russia and Iran from
moving closer together. Last week, Obama's advisers insisted their camp has
made no firm commitments on ballistic missile defense (BMD) installations in
Poland and the Czech Republic, repudiating claims by Polish President Lech
Kaczynski that the new U.S. president-elect had assured him of firm support
during a Nov. 8 phone conversation. This is an enormous issue for the
It is not clear in how broad of a context the idea of avoiding firm
on BMD was mentioned, but it might go a long way toward keeping Russia happy
and therefore making Moscow less likely to provide aid -- material or
psychological -- to the Iranians. Making Iran feel as isolated as possible,
without forcing it into dependence on Russia, is critical to a satisfactory
solution for the United States in Iraq.
Complicating this are what appear to be serious political issues in Iran.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been attacked for his handling of
economy. He has seen an ally forced from the Interior Ministry and the head
the Iranian central bank replaced. Ahmadinejad has even come under criticism
for his views on Israel, with critics saying that he has achieved nothing
lost much through his statements. He therefore appears to be on the
The gridlock in Baghdad is not over a tedious diplomatic point, but over the
future of Iraq and its relation to Iran. At the same time, there appears to
a debate going on in Iran over whether Ahmadinejad's policies have improved
outlook for Iran's role in Iraq. Finally, any serious thoughts the Iranians
might have had about cozying up to the Russians have dissipated since
and Obama might have made them even more distant. Still, Obama's apparent
commitment to a timed, complete withdrawal of U.S. forces poses
His advisers have already hinted at flexibility on these issues.
We think that Bush will -- after all his leaks -- smooth the way for Obama
opening diplomatic relations with Iran. From a political point of view, this
will allow Bush to take some credit for any breakthrough. But from the
view of U.S. national interest, going public with conversations that have
place privately over the past couple of years (along with some formal,
meetings in Baghdad) makes a great deal of sense. It could possibly create
internal dynamic in Iran that would force Ahmadinejad out, or at least
him. It could potentially break the logjam over the SOFA in Baghdad, and it
could even stabilize the region.
The critical question will not be the timing of the U.S. withdrawal. It
the residual force -- whether an American force of 20,000 to 40,000 troops
remain to guarantee that Iran does not have undue influence in Iraq, and
Sunni and Kurdish interests are protected. Obama promised to end the war in
Iraq, and he promised to withdraw all U.S. troops. He might have to deal
the fact that he can have the former only if he compromises on the latter.
he has left himself enough room for maneuver that he can do just that.
It seems clear that Iran will now return to the top of the U.S. foreign
agenda. If Bush re-establishes formal diplomatic relations with Iran at some
level, and if Obama responds to Iranian congratulations in a positive way,
an interesting dynamic will be in place well before Inauguration Day. The
will be the Nov. 10 meeting between Bush and Obama.
Bush wants to make a move that saves some of his legacy; Obama knows he will
have to deal with Iran and even make concessions. Obama also knows the
political price he will have to pay if he does. If Bush makes the first
it will make things politically easier for Obama. Obama can afford to let
take the first step if it makes the subsequent steps easier for the Obama
administration. But first, there must be an understanding between Bush and
Obama. Then can there be an understanding between the United States and
and then there can be an understanding among Iraqi Shia, Sunnis and Kurds.
then history can move on.
There are many understandings in the way of history.
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Copyright 2008 Stratfor.
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