Opinion
12:00 pm
Mon November 7, 2011

Op-Ed: Iran Losing Pull In Iraq

Originally published on Mon November 14, 2011 10:51 am

Transcript

NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan.

And now, the Opinion Page, and we've invited Ray Takeyh today because of an opinion piece he wrote for The Washington Post that challenges the conventional wisdom on Iran's future role in Iraq. Many argue that the departure of U.S. troops - planned to pull out by the end of this year - will allow Tehran to put Baghdad into a close orbit. Unlikely, Ray Takeyh argues - Iran's policy in Iraq is in shambles. If you've been in Iraq, call and tell us what you've seen about the extent of Iranian influence there. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation on our website and find a link to his op-ed. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. And we'll get to that in a couple of minutes.

But this week, we await publication of an IAEA report we're told will conclude that Iran has mastered all of the technologies required to build a nuclear weapon small enough to put in one of its ballistic missiles. Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He joins us here in Studio 3A, and nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

RAY TAKEYH: Thank you very much.

CONAN: And if this IAEA report says what we're told it will say, what are the options now?

TAKEYH: Well, the IAEA report, as you suggested, will chronicle Iran's weaponization activities, the research into proscribed technologies and so forth. I think this report is being seen in Washington and perhaps other capitals as a means of getting additional sanctions placed upon Iran, perhaps through the United Nations, but certainly outside the United Nations. The idea being that this will essentially give further impetus to the efforts to further stress Iran's economy through international prohibitions. I'm not quite sure if that will do that because nations such as Russia and China who have all been dubious of sanctions are already aware of the content of this report. So it's unlikely that it will generate the kind of economic sanctions activity that it is hoped it would.

CONAN: That would be meaningful, in other words.

TAKEYH: Well, that's right. But it still may trigger other countries such as European countries, Japanese and South Koreans and others to further impose restrictions on the trade.

CONAN: And yet, we've also heard talk from Israel that the time is shortening, that Israel may decide to strike Iran's nuclear facilities.

TAKEYH: Well, we've been hearing this from Israel at least since 2005. So in that sense, it's not particularly new, and I don't think it's particularly credible in terms of actual Israeli preemption. What Israelis are trying to do by such saber-rattling is to put the Iran nuclear transgressions back on the front pages of newspapers where it has been obscured because of the developments in Arab Spring, Egyptian-Israeli relationship, the developments in Syria, Tunisia, Libya. There's been a lot of other news out there that has obscured the Iranian nuclear activity. So by having this kind of a campaign in conjunction with the IAEA report, Iran once again assumes a prominent place in the attention span of international policymakers.

CONAN: One other factor brought in, some have said in the past that even if Iran does acquire nuclear weapons, Iran is not an irrational actor, that its leadership would be sober and judicious in the use of nuclear weapons as every other state that them has been in the past. Yet, then we see the allegations by the attorney general, the head of the FBI and the president of the United States saying that Iran was planning to blow up the Saudi ambassador to the United States in a Washington, D.C., restaurant and kill 50, 100 people.

TAKEYH: In a Washington, D.C., restaurant about half a mile outside the White House. That's actually kind of sobering news because it calls into question some of the more sanguine anticipation of what Iran will do should it have nuclear weapons. Nobody is suggesting that they're going to use those weapons to bomb Israel or what have you. But whether Iran is going to be more truculent, more aggressive and more risk-prone if it perceives such nuclear immunities. If it's willing to engage in this sort of a conduct - if allegations are true, if it's willing to engage in such conduct today, then how would it behave if it has the perceptional strategic deterrence that only a nuclear umbrella provides?

CONAN: Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Thank you for that. There's going to be more later this week as we find out what that report on the IAEA actually says. We're expecting it out as soon as Wednesday. And - but I wanted to get back to the thrust of your op-ed that was published in The Washington Post. And we want to hear from those of you who served in Iraq about what you saw about the extent of Iran's influence in that country. And there have been many influential voices, as you noted in your op-ed, who say the departure of U.S. forces is a gift to Iran, which will pull Baghdad more and more into its orbit, and you say not so fast.

TAKEYH: No, I don't think Iraqis that have labor under Saddam's regime and then under international occupation, which has become somewhat unpopular in Iraq, as you saw over the tense negotiation over the status of forces agreement - this is a country that's kind of nationalistic in terms of its perception, it's trying to put behind its sectarian wars and cleavages and essentially constitute some sort of a national institution and national order. So I don't think Iraqis are looking to be subsidiaries of Iran, agents of Iran, or being dominated by the Iranian government next door, irrespective of their sectarian identity.

CONAN: Yet we have consistently heard allegations that important forces in Iranian - Iraqi politics, the Muqtada al-Sadr, that force, the Mahdi Army, and now his political party, are very closely aligned with Iran.

TAKEYH: I think a lot of actors in Iraq, whether it's Prime Minister Maliki or members of the Iraqi Shia community, have relationships and conversations and discussions with Iran. There's commerce taking place between these two countries, which is growing to some extent. I'm not quite sure if that necessarily mean a subsidiary relationship is being created. And moreover, Muqtada al-Sadr is a particularly problematic agent of Iranian dominance, if in fact he is one, because he's Arab nationalist, has in the past indulged in anti-Persian rhetoric. He certainly is erratic in his behavior, so I'm not quite sure if he's going to be the vehicle for Iranian advancement within Iraqi politics.

In the long run, Iran and Iraq may become competitors in some form. As greater degree of Iraqi oil production comes online, suddenly you begin to see Iraq today produces 3 million barrels of oil. If that increases over time, you begin to see Iraq's production, which has great degree of international investments in it, actually damage Iran's own economy because of Iran's oil productions are declining given the dilapidated infrastructure that it has.

CONAN: Some also say different regions of the country are of more interest to Iran than others, particularly the southern area around the port city of Basra. This is a very heavily Shia area, area where people note the Iranian flag, an enormous Iranian flag, flies over its consulate there.

TAKEYH: It's suggested often that Iran prefers to have a federal and decentralized Iraq, one where you have strong provinces and a weak central government because it's easier to project influence in that type of a country, because provinces more susceptible to Iranian trade and blandishment and infiltration and so forth. As I said, I think Iran and Iraq can have decent relationship, diplomatic relationship, commerce, trade. I'm not quite sure if that necessarily means an alliance or the Iranian domination of Iraqi politics.

CONAN: There are also any number of militia groups that looked to Iran to arm them during the, basically, the civil war. And many fear that the civil war could erupt again after the departure of the referee, the United States.

TAKEYH: Well, that's one aspect of Iranian behavior that has been both advantageous to Iran and problematic for Iran, because it is true that Iran does have relationship with militias and some of the splinter groups from the Mahdi Army, large portions of the Mahdi Army have been incorporated in the Iraqi military. But nevertheless, Iran does have that particular approach. Now those particular militia groups that it has relationships with are fairly lethal, fairly aggressive, and their conduct has actually antagonized the Maliki government because the Maliki government, as any central government would, would like to extend its authority, and it views such transgressions as militating against that. So having that relationship gives Iran an inroad in Iraqi politics. But that comes with its own burdens and baggages.

CONAN: Like?

TAKEYH: Like alienating the central government of Iraq; like alienating the Shia population given the violence that these militias are perpetrating; like in further antagonizing the United States because some of those violence has been targeted against American personnel and so forth.

CONAN: Yet if Sunni violence steps up, that equation could change.

TAKEYH: If Iraq is to degenerate into another civil war, then you begin to see all regional actors are going to be further intervening in Iraq. That's Iran, that's Saudi Arabia, that's Turkey, that's everybody else. I'm not quite sure if the departure of the American forces is likely to trigger return to 2006 and 2007, the pre-surge period, because I think most Iraqis are prepared to put the burdens of the war behind them and move to more of a national institutions.

And the argument seems somewhat dubious to me, that somehow the presence of anywhere between five to 25,000 American troops would prevent the disintegration of Iraqi political order. I can't believe the Iraqi political order is so tenuous and so weak that actually presence of small number of American forces will prevent from its disintegration. So I think it's likely every time Iraqis come to the precipice of actually returning to 2006 and 2007, the dark days of the civil war, they tend to pull back from it.

CONAN: Yet the perceptions of Iraqi weakness, this is a country that will have virtually no army capable of fighting the Iranians. It has very little in the way of artillery and armor. Its air force is nascent at best if American forces leave by the end of the year. And it would be, even if not invaded by Iran, intimidated by its much better-armed neighbor.

TAKEYH: Yeah, I don't think Iraq is looking, at this point, given the capabilities that you spoke off, to once again reimpose itself as the regional bulwark against Persian predominance and Persian expansion. They don't see themselves in the same role that Saddam did. Iraq today does have a foreign policy orientation that differs from Iraq of the 1990s and 1980s. In the 1990s and 1980s, under Saddam, Iraq sought to dominate the Arab world, partly by having an anti-Persian policy. Today is an Iraq that wants to have good relationship with all its Arab neighbors, if possible, but certainly non-Arab neighbors. Now, that's Iran. That's Turkey as well. So it's a different Iraq with a different international orientation than what we saw in the past.

CONAN: We're talking with Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations on the Opinion Page this week. His piece: "Iran's Waning Influence on Iraq," was featured in The Washington Post. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Let me ask another question: Iran's most important Arab ally is clearly Syria, a government that's under considerable stress from the protests under way in that country and under economic sanctions as well. How does that factor into Iran's feelings about its role in Iraq?

TAKEYH: Well, to begin with, Iran has also been trying to develop a post-Assad approach. Namely, it's been calling on President Assad to reform. It's been hedging its bets a little bit. So it is preparing for the post-Assad period, and it feels that so long as Syria remains a loggerhead with Israel, whomever succeeds Assad is likely to maintain some aspect of that confrontational foreign policy and therefore seize advantages in terms of relationship with Iran. So the relationship between Iran and Syria, that alliance which is three decades old, they seem to think may now predicated on longevity of Assad. They could be quite wrong about that impression.

CONAN: Yes, but they also use Syria as an - the transit point for arming Hezbollah in Lebanon and arming other groups as well.

TAKEYH: Absolutely. And they would think that those relationships would continue because Syria would continue to find itself at odds with Israel and therefore would have his own interest in subsiding and maintaining Hezbollah as a ready force. Now, that certainly - the fact that the Syrian government is wobbly and having difficulties and quite possibly may be overturned by the Arab Spring revolt that it's experiencing has caused Iran to become even more interested in having a relationship, some sort of a cordial relationship with the Iraqi government because that gives it some degree of strategic depth, certainly in the area that is most interested to Iran, namely the Persian Gulf region, that sort of the Gulf area. So that makes the relationship with Iraq even more important for Iran, which is why it's curious that it's engaging in self-defeating activities, such as supporting militias that are antagonizing the central government.

CONAN: Yet, Iraq, you say, is interested in maintaining close relations with all of its neighbors. You mentioned its non-Arab neighbors. Its neighbor to the immediate south, Saudi Arabia, increasingly at loggerheads with Iran.

TAKEYH: Well, this is the problem that Iraqi government is having today, namely that the Shia government of Iraq that has come to power through elections, however problematic those elections may have been and however difficult and disorderly the process may have been, is being rejected by the mainstream Arab states, whether that's Syria, it used to be Jordan and others. So one way of actually having Iraq have a less of a relationship with Iran is to open up those diplomatic and economic channels. The principal obstacle to that is Saudi Arabia, which tends to view Iran and Maliki, Iraq and Maliki in such subsidiary terms. So in terms of Saudi-Iranian relationship, I think it's very important for Iraq to remain exempt from U.S.-Iranian retaliation and relationships and Saudi-Iranian confrontation. And to the extent that it can do that, it has to do it with its own delicate diplomatic dance.

CONAN: Yet if - and this is going back to our earlier conversation. We have heard admissions by the Iranians, unusual admissions in recent days about the effectiveness, in some respects, of international sanctions. If those sanctions are to be avoided and if they're stepped up in regard to the forthcoming IAEA report on Iranian nuclear capabilities, the easiest way to do that is through Iraq, to conduct business on the other side of that border.

TAKEYH: The sanctions that are being imposed on Iran are essentially far more intrusive than that. And they have to do with cutting off Iran from the international financial lending organizations, cutting off Iran and segregating them from banks. Therefore when India wants to buy Iranian oil, it is unable to carry out that transaction simply because most banks will not process it. That is not something that Iraq can mitigate. I mean, you can do contraband trade and so forth, but no one - there are countries that want to buy Iranian oil. Iranian oil is not a proscribed commodity.

It is not an internationally illegal practice to purchase Iranian oil. Many Europeans do - Japanese do, South Koreans, Indians, the Chinese. The issue of sanctions is in this globalized, interconnected system of financing that we live in, once Iran is segregated from that system, it's very difficult to carry out those transactions. It's not a question of carrying contraband. It's this question of buying it.

CONAN: Yes. But can't that Iranian oil be repackaged as the new find here in Iraq?

TAKEYH: Well, Iraq itself is trying to have its own oil and have international commerce come in. Largest companies investing in Iraqi oil are actually the Chinese. So it's unlikely that Iraq would offer itself as such a thing. But Iranian oil can't find customers - there's no question about it - through spot markets, the grey markets or what have you. The only question is, at what discount does Iran have to sell its oil in light of its international difficulties?

CONAN: Ray Takeyh, thank you very much for your time. We appreciate it.

TAKEYH: Thank you.

CONAN: Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, with us here in Studio 3A. A link to his piece, "Iran's Waning Influence on Iraq," can be found at our website. Go to npr.org. We've also posted links to a number of other op-eds we considered for the show today. You can find those at facebook.com/nprtalk. Tomorrow at this hour, we'll talk with a "Frontline" reporter who went undercover in Syria. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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