Iraq: Could Iranian Summit Lead To Breakthrough?
By Sumedha Senanayake
November 22, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- On November 21, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani
accepted an invitation from his Iranian counterpart to visit Tehran on November
25-26. Talabani and Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad will discuss ways to
end the violence currently plaguing Iraq, and conflicting reports suggest
Syria's president might also attend.
The veracity of reports
claiming the Tehran event will be a trilateral summit is still in doubt, but
Iraq's Al-Sharqiyah television also reported on November 20 that a three-way
summit is scheduled for early December.
While U.S. officials have taken a cautious view of the
reported summit, the announcement on November 21 that Syria and Iraq have
reestablished diplomatic ties appears to signal increased cooperation.
Both Washington and Baghdad have long accused Syria of doing too little
to prevent Arab fighters and weapons from crossing the porous Iraqi-Syrian
border. On November 20, U.S. military spokesman Major General William Caldwell
said that "between 70 and 100 fighters are crossing the border into Iraq" every
month, Reuters reported.
Furthermore, the U.S. military claims that many
former Iraqi Ba'athists based in Syria are organizing raids across the border
and are thought to form the backbone of the insurgency. The diplomatic thaw
between Iraq and Syria could prompt Damascus to do more to stop Arab fighters
from infiltrating into Iraq and rein in the Ba'athists -- moves that could help
curb the insurgency.
Iran's initiative to convene a trilateral summit is
presumably motivated by self-interest, but its increased cooperation could have
Tehran has historical ties with some of Iraq's
most influential Shi'a. Many of them, including Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, the leader
of the powerful Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI),
lived in Iranian exile during the reign of former Iraqi President Saddam
Hussein. SCIRI's military wing, the Badr Organization, was also trained by the
Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and Iran is suspected by British and
U.S. officials of continuing to fund and arm the
Iranian pressure on SCIRI to reign in the Badr
Organization -- which along with Muqtada al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army is accused
by the United States of carrying out attacks against Sunni Arabs -- could thus
help ease sectarian strife. The question of how to deal with the Shi'ite
militias has become a contentious issue between U.S. officials and Iraqi Shi'ite
leaders, and Tehran's influence could prompt Iraqi Shi'ite leaders to be more
amenable to reining in their forces.
In the broader political context,
news of the proposed summit comes as both the United States and Britain openly
discuss whether to engage Iran and Syria and enlist their help in stabilizing
Iraq. This underscores the influence that both Iran and Syria have on Iraq's
security, but proponents of engagement might also argue that it is an
opportunity to create a broader working group to tackle these issues.
Iranian, Syrian Motives
It would arguably be in the
interests of both Iran and Syria to have a stable Iraq. Each country shares a
long border with Iraq, and if its neighbor descends into full-scale civil war --
or if the Baghdad government collapses -- the ensuing chaos could spill across
Officials in Tehran are likely to regard their summit
initiative as enhancing Iran's position as a regional power, as well as placing
it in solid position ahead of any anticipated shift in U.S. policy in Iraq. The
Iraq Study Group -- led by former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and former
Representative Lee Hamilton -- is expected to issue its assessment and policy
One possible conclusion that has drawn much
attention is the idea of direct negotiations with Iran and Syria over Iraq. It
might be tempting to regard Iran's summit proposal as an attempt to take the
lead before any U.S. policy shift occurs, so as to avoid any appearance that it
is falling in line with a U.S. plan.
Iran's willingness to assist Iraq
might also serve as leverage in its standoff with the United States over
Tehran's disputed nuclear program.
Syria might also seek to use its
influence in Iraq to win concessions from Washington. Damascus could try to
persuade the United States to pressure Israel to discuss a land-for-peace deal
concerning the strategically important Golan Heights. Or it could push for the
lifting of international sanctions and other steps to reduce its international
If a trilateral summit of the
Iranian, Iraqi, and Syrian leaders does take place, it is still unclear what
chance it has of producing concrete solutions to stem the violence in Iraq. The
holding of a three-way summit might in itself be viewed as a positive sign
suggesting that Iran and Syria are serious about Iraqi stability.
there are no guarantees that any tangible results will emerge from the meeting.
Iran and Syria have expressed their desire to see a stable Iraq in the past, but
critics have accused them of failing to follow up on those claims. U.S. State
Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey emphasized that point on November 20, when
he urged Iran to play a more productive role in Iraq. Casey asserted that "the
problem is not what [Iranian officials] say," but "what they
Copyright (c) 2006 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
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