The recent approval of the security pact by the Iraqi Cabinet, which would require Washington to withdraw its forces by the end of 2011, marks a new development in U.S.-Iran relations. While Iran has fiercely opposed the agreement since negotiations began earlier this year, the election of Barack Obama has provided a new incentive for Tehran to modify its antagonistic policy toward the security agreement and demonstrate that it can help Washington by not becoming a major stumbling block to U.S. efforts to establish military ties with Baghdad.
The latest shift in Iranian strategy that has moved away from derailing the bilateral agreement (mostly by exerting pressure on Shia Iraqi representatives to reject the security proposal) suggests that Tehran sees the future of U.S. policy in a new light and seeks to cooperate with Washington, if its interests are also recognized through mutual diplomacy.
In essence, Iran wants U.S. forces out of Iraq and hopes that a Shia-led government would back its efforts to keep Iranian borders clear from any potential U.S. military attacks. However, Tehran has opposed the security agreement for fear that Baghdad would succumb to U.S. pressure in establishing permanent bases in Iraq and, accordingly, pose a long-term military threat to its national security.
At the time when tensions between Tehran and Washington remain high, the security agreement that grants Baghdad only limited judicial authority over American soldiers and sets a tentative timetable for full withdrawal of U.S. troops by the end of 2011 has failed to alleviate Iranian fears.
Despite Baghdad's assurance that Iraq will not be used as a launching pad to attack Iran, the approved security pact is viewed by Tehran as replete with ambiguous terms and vaguely worded statements, providing room for U.S. to legally legitimize its military presence in Iraq beyond 2011.
But recently Tehran has also witnessed a historic American election, and views the up-coming administration, which endorses a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq in less than two years, as less confrontational.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's congratulatory letter to Obama signals a new, softer attitude toward U.S., especially from the hard-liners who get their cue from the head of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. This new attitude became more apparent on the day after Iraq's cabinet approved the deal, when Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahrudi, the hardline head of Iran's judiciary, applauded the Iraqi lawmakers for their decision and showed that Tehran is willing to soften its position.
But Shahrudi's upbeat reaction to the security agreement also followed Ali Larijani's critical remarks, urging the Iraqi National Assembly to reject the deal. Larijani's tough talk reveals an ambiguity in Iranian policy. By sending a mixed message to Washington, Tehran wants to show Obama its willingness to collaborate, but also display resilience so U.S. would not perceive its new strategy as a sign of weakness.
Beyond the new strategy, what the latest development in Iran's Iraq policy also reveals is the limit of Tehran's influence in Baghdad. Although many Shia (and Sunni) Iraqis share Iran's opposition toward the agreement, they do so according to a uniquely Iraqi nationalist perspective.
On the symbolic-nationalistic level, the Shia Iraqi opposition to the security agreement is largely a reaction to memories of another humiliating security agreement that Iraq signed with Britain in 1930, which gave overwhelming authority to British forces in Iraq for nearly thirty years. Meanwhile, on the political level, Shia political figures like the young cleric Moqtada Sadr oppose the pact in order to solidify their status as nationalist leaders, and hence improve their appeal among voters ahead of the provincial and general elections in 2009.
Finally, there is Iran's relationship with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most influential Shia cleric in Iraq. It is true that Sistani maintains close ties with Iranian-based clerics and frequently meets with visiting Iranian officials, especially pragmatic conservative figures like Ali Larijani.
But Sistani also rejects the theocratic rule in Iran and refuses to travel to Iran for medical treatment; he even declined to meet with Ahmadinejad during his visit to Iraq in spring 2008. Since early 2008, Sistani has been a staunch opponent of the security pact, challenging the non-transparency of the deal and lack of provisions that would guarantee Iraq's sovereignty. He has largely opposed the agreement primarily on the grounds that it deprives Iraq of its national autonomy.
Yet Sistani has also thrown his weight behind Nouri al-Maliki and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim in their negotiations with Washington over specific phrases and terms in the agreement, and if the pact is approved by the Iraqi National Assembly it would largely be due to Sistani's influence. By and large, Tehran has been left out of the Baghdad-Najaf talks over the security agreement.
All in all, Tehran's latest change of strategy in Iraq holds lessons that go beyond the security pact. It demonstrates that, contrary to the common view that Iran wields overwhelming influence with Baghdad, Shia Iraq maintains a complex political reality, independent of Iran.
It also shows how, despite its limited influence, Iran can still play a positive role in bringing stability to Iraq. But such positive influence will only be carried out if Tehran perceives a new attitude in Washington towards Iran; one based on diplomatic engagement and not military threats.
Prof. Babak Rahimi teaches Iranian and Islamic Studies at University of California San Diego.
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