November 6, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- At a conference of
Iraq's neighbors in Istanbul on November 3, Iran unveiled its much-discussed
proposal to deal with Iraq's security problems.
But the proposal turned out to be a
reiteration of its old position that foreign troops are fueling the instability
in Iraq and must leave. Tehran also suggested that coalition troops be replaced
with soldiers from neighboring countries -- including Iran and Syria -- a
suggestion that was rejected outright by other conference participants, such as
the United States and Saudi Arabia.
But Iranian media have suggested that
the lack of any new proposal at the conference could simply reflect a
realization by Tehran that the only way to improve security in Iraq involves the
resumption of direct talks on security between Washington and Tehran.
Many Points, But Little Detail
On the sidelines of the
conference, Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki said that the foreign
troops in Iraq are aggravating problems there because of their ignorance of
Iraqi culture, society, and history.
He also continued to deplore the
creation of "parallel formations" and "dozens of security organizations and
formations," presumably referring to private security firms. Mottaki said Iraq's
government has minimal decision-making powers and he called for action -- not
"ceremonial" meetings -- to help Iraq.
The foreign minister also
presented a 14-point plan for Iraq's political and economic regeneration and
stabilization. The plan calls for Iraq's government to set a timetable for the
departure of foreign troops; for the immediate transfer of "state" powers to the
Iraqi government; for Iraqi forces to be in charge of all security issues; for
the expulsion of "organized terrorist groups"; and for Baghdad to make
agreements with its neighbors on border security.
mentioned include the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Party for a Free
Life in Kurdistan (PJAK) -- Kurdish groups battling Turkish and Iranian forces,
respectively -- and the left-wing militants of the Mujahedin Khalq Organization,
a group opposed to Tehran and currently based in Iraq with the permission of
coalition forces, which has angered Iran.
Other items in the Iranian plan
for Iraq are the expulsion of private security firms such as Blackwater; an
extensive amnesty for those jailed for offenses committed against the
"occupying" forces; and the handover of weapons by "militias" that have "not
cooperated with known terrorist groups" and an amnesty for their members or
their partial inclusion in Iraqi government forces.
Mottaki's plan also
urges regional states to help Iraq with security and other items related to
reconstruction and energy provision. It cited the main neighboring powers as
Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Syria, and included a role for the United
Certain items are ill-defined, and not for the first time in
Iranian policy. Who are the terrorists and who are the militias eligible for
amnesty, or the women and children the plan cites as unjustly jailed by
Iran would surely disagree with Saudi Arabia over
the identity of terrorists and militias. The Saudis might take a more benevolent
view of some Sunni groups, as Iran has toward Shi'ite militia groups.
Why Was Plan Even Offered?
Iran's plan, as reported by
Iranian media, essentially depicts the presence of U.S. forces as the chief
cause of insurgency, international terrorism activity, and Sunni-Shi'a hatred.
The solution proposed is to seek the help of Iraq's neighbors, but how
disinterested are these neighbors? Iranian media are disinclined to report a
presumed willingness in the Iraqi government to maintain a U.S. troop presence,
or anything suggesting distrust in Iraq of Iranian or Saudi
In other words, the plan seems almost the sort of
"ceremonial" proposal Mottaki said Iraq can do without, unlikely as it is to be
implemented or backed by conservative Arab states. If Iranian officials espouse
political realism, then this plan lacks conviction -- making it unclear why it
was proposed at all.
Iran's government must know the United States will
not leave Iraq now and allow Shi'ite and Sunni radicals to fight it out with the
discreet or open backing of their respective neighboring patron states. The
proposal and response -- as in some other international questions -- touch on
wider issues affecting Iran, the distrust it provokes, the distrust it has of
Western states and their regional allies, and the international credibility of
The reformist daily "Etemad-i Melli" presented a more
realistic view on November 3. It commented that "without a doubt the immediate
withdrawal of the U.S. Army would leave the unstable [Prime Minister Nuri]
al-Maliki government alone with terrorists and opponents." But the editorial
reminded the United States that it could not assure Iraq's long-term security
without the cooperation of Iraq's neighbors, and expressed the hope that the
Istanbul conference would bring regional states and "influential powers" to
cooperate over Iraq.
It may well be a realization of the United States'
crucial role in Iraq that has prompted Iranian media to report as much on the
possible renewal of U.S.-Iran talks over Iraq as they have about the Istanbul
conference. As with dispute over its nuclear program, Iran uses the vocabulary
of legalism and constitutionality. But its willingness to talk to the EU -- or
in this case to the United States, the world power that it keeps telling to
leave Iraq -- shows a willingness to negotiate and presumably compromise behind
closed doors in the manner of 19th-century great-power diplomacy.
in Tehran on the resumption of talks with the United States have given an
impression that this -- not the Istanbul conference -- is the news of interest
to Iranians: the pursuit of contacts with the United States, perceived by many
in Iran to be the key to resolving Iran's many