Don’t Count on Iran to Pick Up the Pieces in Iraq

Kenneth M Pollack
Kenneth M Pollack Former Brookings Expert, Resident Scholar - AEI

December 8, 2006

As anticipated, the Iraq Study Group has recommended that the United States begin talks with Iran to solicit its assistance in stabilizing Iraq. This recommendation seems so sensible that the Bush administration’s past reluctance to follow it is hard to fathom. Still, administration officials are right to counter that talking to Iran is not a policy, let alone a solution to our problems in Iraq.

The real questions are these: What do we say to the Iranians if we can get them to the table? What can they do in Iraq? What would they be willing to do in Iraq? And what will they want in return?

We should have engaged Iran in Iraq years ago. Before and during the war in Afghanistan, the Iranians were quite helpful to the United States. They shared our hatred of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and they provided us with extensive assistance on intelligence, logistics, diplomacy and Afghan internal politics. After we turned our sights on Saddam Hussein, the Iranians suggested that they would be willing to cooperate on that too. Unfortunately, the Bush administration declined the offer, preferring to lump Tehran with Baghdad and Pyongyang in the “axis of evil.”

None of this should suggest that Iran was helping us for reasons other than blatant self-interest, or that it had suddenly given up its antipathy toward us. But it was demonstrating real pragmatism and being very helpful on issues of mutual concern, which should have been good enough.

Today, large numbers of Iranian intelligence agents have infiltrated Iraq, where they seem to be providing money, weapons and other supplies to virtually all of Iraq’s Shiite militias. There are reports that Hezbollah is training Iraqi Shiite militiamen in Lebanon at Iran’s behest. And the Shiite warlords all know that in an all-out civil war, Iran would be their only backer.

All of that gives the Iranians influence over the Shiite militias — influence that could be helpful to the United States as it tries to forge a new strategy toward Iraq.

We should be careful, however, not to exaggerate Iran’s influence. The problems in Iraq were not caused by the Iranians, nor can Iran solve them all.

Most Iraqis dislike the Iranians. In fact, “dislike” is too mild a term. In 2004 and early 2005, when it still seemed as if the United States-led reconstruction of Iraq might succeed, Shiite politicians were bending over backward to demonstrate that they were independent of Iran for fear their constituents would not support them otherwise.

Furthermore, while Iranian support is no doubt gratefully received, the evidence suggests that it is now more a supplement than a necessity for the major militias. At this point, the main Shiite groups — the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the Mahdi Army, and the Fadhila Party among others — have considerable support among the population and are accused of making enormous amounts of money off oil smuggling and organized crime. Plus, there is no shortage of weapons in Iraq, with additional supplies readily available on the regional black market.

So Tehran can influence the behavior of the Shiite groups, but it probably would have a hard time forcing them to do things they do not want to do — like disbanding their militias, accepting a national reconciliation agreement, participating in an equitable oil-sharing scheme or accepting any of the other major changes that the Bush administration is seeking. If Iran were to threaten to end its support for these groups, they would most likely tell Tehran to get lost. What’s more, the Iranians seem to understand this, having so far proven reluctant to try to force any of the Shiite groups to radically change course.

The limits on Iranian influence are a double-edged sword. They mean that we cannot count on Iran to solve Iraq’s problems, but they also mean that we need not offer the Iranians the world in return for their assistance. Right now, Tehran and its bombastic president are riding high in the Middle East, and they will doubtless want something in return for helping us deal with Iraq. For instance, they may demand that the United States drop its objections to their nuclear program or cave in to Hezbollah’s demands for a greater say in Lebanon.

Especially given the likely limits on what Iran can deliver in Iraq, these would not be prices worth paying. Instead, the United States should emphasize a shared interest in preventing Iraq’s further implosion, as chaos there could easily spread to Iran — a danger most of Tehran’s leaders seem to appreciate.

In exchange for Iran’s assistance, Washington should recognize Iran’s legitimate interests in Iraq, keep it (generally) apprised of military operations, and possibly even develop a liaison relationship with the Iranian military and intelligence services by which the two sides could exchange limited information, thereby dampening Iranian fears of malign American intentions.

Much of this could be accomplished by forming a standing contact group made up of Iraq’s neighbors — similar to the international support group proposed by Baker-Hamilton. The Iraqi government and the coalition forces would regularly brief this group and seek its advice, which should be ignored only with good reason. In return, the members of the contact group would commit to providing specific kinds of economic, political, diplomatic and even military support.

There are at least three good reasons to try this approach. First, no neighboring state is likely to significantly alter strategy unless they all do. Second, our efforts to work with Iran in Iraq cannot come at the expense of our traditional allies among the Sunni states of the region: Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Finally, the problems in Iraq have become so daunting and so intertwined that we need every ounce of help we can get from every source available.

We can’t simply expect Iran to save Iraq for us. Even all of Iraq’s neighbors working in concert would play just a supporting role. Only the United States, working with those forces in Iraq still fighting the good fight, can possibly alter Iraq’s catastrophic course.

We need a new, feasible plan of our own. Only then will we know how best Iran can help, and what we are willing to pay for that help. Talking to Iran without such a plan would be fruitless, if not folly.