April 21, 2008

O'Hanlon Goes to Tehran in Search of Failure

This week or next there is likely to be a major Bush administration briefing laying out new evidence of "malign" Iranian involvement in Iraq. I suspect the briefing will be given by MNF-I or the Baghdad Embassy, or both. It will pick up on a major theme of the recent Petraeus/Crocker testimony: Iran, not AQI, is now public enemy #1 in Iraq.

In the lead up to this event, expect a wave of op-eds this week by administration surrogates aimed at highlighting the Iranian threat. Today's installment comes from Michael O'Hanlon in the Washington Times. O'Hanlon, ostensibly a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, increasingly sounds like he is auditioning for the presidency of the American Enterprise Institute. He calls for negotiating with Iran, but like the folks over at AEI, he expects diplomacy will fail. The goal, for O'Hanlon, is not successful diplomacy aimed at limiting Iran's lethal aid to Shia militants in Iraq. Rather, talks with Iran make sense

[N]ot because it will likely produce any breakthroughs, but because what Professor Victor Cha calls "hawkish engagement" can set the U.S. up more effectively to galvanize the kind of growing international pressure on Iran that is probably our only long-term hope of producing better behavior from Teheran. By trying to talk, we better position ourselves to get tough and have others join the effort.

Through negotiation, we can prove to the world that American recalcitrance, Texas cowboy foreign policymaking, and pre-emption doctrine are not the real problems here. Only by patiently trying to work with Iran, and consistently failing to make progress, will we gradually convince Bush-haters and U.S. doubters around the world that the real problem does not lie in Washington.

O'Hanlon is right that we need to start high-level negotiations with Iran over a whole range of issues--including their invovlement in Iraq. He is also right that serious negotiations will help us re-secure the international high ground--an important objective in-and-of-itself in the event this diplomacy fails. But starting these negotiations under the assumption (hope?) that they will fail risks encouraging U.S. diplomats to underrate the possibility that they might actually succeed.

There is zero doubt that Iran has a considerable amount of American blood on their hands in Iraq. Iran has also proven to be much more adept at realpolitik than we are. The Iranians have successfully backed all sides in the intra-Shia dispute to gain leverage and influence, and they have demonstrated their ability to dial violence in Iraq up or down to serve their interests. But two recent events--the Iranian brokered de-escalation of the conflict between Maliki's government and Sadr in Qom and the Iranian ambassador to Iraq's declared support for Maliki's continued operations against "outlaws" (i.e., Sadrists) in Basra--also indictate that Iran does not want to see a failed state emerge in Iraq as consequence of an all-out intra-Shia civil war. That is good news. Recent events also suggest that Maliki's government finally sent a clear signal to Tehran that they had to chose a side, and Iran may be listening--also good news.

This is important information. It suggests that there may be room for productive U.S.-Iranian dialogue over Iraq in the future, especially if these negotiations occur within the context of U.S.-Iraqi discussions setting a time horizon for an eventual American withdrawal. Of course this is not how O'Hanlon sees things: "Until they [the Iranians] change their minds, all we can do is be patient, keep fighting in Iraq, keep gathering intelligence throughout the region — and keep trying to prove we are the reasonable ones" (emphasis added). In other words, "stay the course." But the "course" has been precisely what has empowered the Iranians in Iraq and the region. The course continues to keep 160K American troops mired in Iraq and, by shrinking U.S. military options, reduces our leverage over Tehran.

Thus, the goal should not be to engage in half-hearted-we-hope-they-fail talks with Iran in the context of maxing out our troop presence in Iraq. And the goal should not be reducing Iranian influence in Iraq to zero--an unrealistic fantasy and a standard for "success" so high that it will never be reached and will only serve to bog us down in Iraq for decades. Rather, the goal of U.S.-Iran talks should be to sharpely curtail lethal Iranian aid to Shia militias and isolate Iranian "special groups" (something the U.S. and Iraqi governments both desire) in exchange for an arrangement that leaves Iraq a functioning state in the wake of an American withdrawal (something the U.S., the Iraqis, and, apparently, the Iranians desire).