Los Angeles Times
December 10, 2006 News Analysis
The Islamic Republic's clout in the region, confirmed by the Iraq Study Group, could cost the United States.
By Alissa J. Rubin, Times Staff Writer
PARIS — The report issued last week by the blue-ribbon Iraq Study Group provides fresh proof of Iran's strengthened hand in the Middle East since the U.S.-led invasion: It mentions the Islamic Republic more than 50 times and makes clear that the U.S. will have to seek Iran's help for any resolution.
"The report told the Iranians, You are mighty now in the region and in Iraq. The Iranians feel now they are untouchable," said Mustafa Alani, director of security and terrorism studies at the Gulf Research Center, an independent think tank in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
The Bush administration no longer has much leverage to stop Iran from pursuing uranium enrichment, diplomats and analysts said. And the price of cooperation, Alani said, will be very high.
"They are looking for a grand bargain that includes the nuclear issue, recognition of their influence and position in Iraq, and their position in the balance of power in the region," he said.
Far from spreading democracy through the region, the Iraq war has strengthened a theocracy in which unelected religious figures make many of the crucial decisions.
"So far, Iran won the Iraq war," said George Perkovich, the vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "They gained the most by far."
He said the U.S. hand was already weak on the nuclear issue because of Russia's reluctance to go along with sanctions against the Islamic Republic. But the report makes clear that Iran has substantial leverage in any negotiation, he said, because of Iran's importance in helping to quell the civil war in Iraq. "We have to deal with reality," Perkovich said.
Israel views the situation with alarm. "The idea was to make Iraq a partner in the moderate Arab camp. Instead, it has come under the influence of Iran, a state that calls for Israel's destruction," said Ephraim Sneh, Israel's deputy defense minister.
Underpinning Iran's increased clout are the U.S. failures in Iraq — a state with a Shiite Muslim majority, among whom Iran has long exercised influence — and Tehran's deft diplomacy around the nuclear issue. In a region dominated by Sunni Muslim governments, Shiite-ruled Iran has set itself up as a leader in the confrontation between Islam and the West.
Western diplomats are reluctant to describe Iran as a victor but concede that for the moment, at least, it looks that way.
"Iran won the first round," said a senior Western diplomat in an Arab state. "But there is a long way to go, and if the U.S. leaves Iraq and other countries in the region come in — Saudi, Syria — Iran's position could weaken."
Since Iran was reported to the U.N. Security Council nearly a year ago for failure to comply with the United Nations' nuclear inspections, the Islamic Republic has undertaken a major lobbying campaign in the undeveloped world, which includes many Muslim countries, aimed at shoring up support for its nuclear program.
Iranian officials have framed the Security Council action as a scheme engineered by the West to stifle the progress of less developed countries, and they have encouraged countries to assert their nuclear rights. Signatories of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty are guaranteed the right to pursue the nuclear fuel cycle for peaceful purposes such as generating electricity as long as they forswear nuclear weapons.
Iran says it seeks nuclear technology for civilian purposes such as electricity and medical treatment, but because it kept its program secret for 18 years and there are many questions about aspects of its atomic research, Western countries believe its goal is to gain the capability to make nuclear bombs.
In what has been described as a battle between nuclear haves and have-nots, Iran has altered the debate terms to the point that a number of countries that hadn't previously expressed interested in nuclear technology are now considering it — among them Egypt, Algeria, Nigeria and Indonesia.
"We want to protect our right to civilian nuclear energy," said an African nation's ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Iran has also tried to identify itself with the Muslim Middle East, rather than allowing the ethnic and religious differences between Iran and other Mideast countries to dominate the debate as they have in the past. In addition to being Shiite-ruled in a region dominated by Sunnis, Iran is Persian; nearly all other Mideast countries are Arab.
Analysts emphasized, far more than the report's authors did, that Iran's strengthened position means the nation is unlikely to see any reason to help the U.S. unless Washington meets Iran's demands.
And, they said, Iran will put such a high price on cooperation that it will be impossible for Washington to agree.
"Iran certainly would want recognition of their enrichment program, what they claim to be their rights to uranium enrichment…. They would also want lifting of [existing] U.S. sanctions, particularly on investment in oil and gas," said Mark Fitzpatrick, a senior analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
The United States and Britain, along with France and Germany, have been the strongest proponents of requiring Iran to cease all nuclear-related activity before sitting down to negotiate.
"It's ironic that Bush, after having coined the 'axis of evil' phrase, now finds it very hard to address the Iran problem because of the failure of the Iraq policy," Fitzpatrick said. "So now they have to deal with the demons."
At the same time, the prospect that the U.S. might open negotiations with Iran strikes fear among states in the Arab world that traditionally have been U.S. allies: Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt. It's a Catch-22 in which the U.S. loses if it fails to reach out to Iran but risks alienating friends if it does so.
"Any deal the U.S. makes with Iran will generate huge suspicion in the region: Saudi, Kuwait, the gulf," Alani said.
Carnegie's Perkovich echoed such comments. "The U.S. has no relationship with Iran; you have to fix that. On the other hand, the people with whom you have relationships, the moderate Arab regimes, say you're going to sell them out," he said.
"Now, how do you square that problem?"
Israel, a longtime ally of the United States, also is dismayed by the idea that Washington might make a deal with Iran.
"We're not in a position to give advice to the American administration, but we must express our deepest concerns," Sneh said. "We look to the United States, the lone superpower, to lead the struggle against terrorism and an international effort to thwart the Iranian nuclear project."
Although Iran is often coupled with Syria in the Iraq Study Group report — both countries come in for criticism for meddling in Iraqi affairs — diplomats and experts say the power and influence wielded by Tehran far outstrips that of Damascus.
"Of all the neighbors, Iran has the most leverage in Iraq," the report said.
"Syria is not going to march its army into western Iraq. The Iranians might well send troops into southern Iraq," a Western diplomat said.
In all likelihood, moderate Arab neighbors and Israel need not worry, because even the report's authors appear to think it unlikely that a deal could be struck — unless the U.S. were willing to guarantee it would not try to oust Iran's leaders.
For the moment, the chances of the U.S. agreeing to such a guarantee appear small indeed. Times staff writer Richard Boudreaux in Jerusalem contributed to this report.