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The importance of US engagement with Iran and Syria

Even during the worst days of the cold war, the US kept in contact with the USSR.

By Helena Cobban / December 14, 2006



CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA.

Why did the 10 very experienced members of the Iraq Study Group lay such great stress on the need to engage politically with Iran and Syria? First, because after studying the situation in Iraq for nine long months they understood clearly that it is both "grave" and "deteriorating."

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Second, because they see the need for a large-scale drawdown of the vulnerable US troop presence in Iraq, they also recognized the close link between the need for the US to move combat troops out of there "responsibly" and the need for urgent new diplomatic efforts in Iraq and the region.

A glance at a map will show why any "responsible" drawdown of US troops from Iraq requires Iran's cooperation. Iran has the longest border with Iraq and dominates Iraq's heavily populated east. In a crisis, it could easily close the sea lanes through which most US military supplies reach Iraq. It has longstanding relations with a broad range of Iraqi political groups.

Troop drawdown a must

It's important to recognize – as the ISG also clearly did – that the US has no viable option either for any sustained increase in the US troop strength in Iraq or even for maintaining the current US deployment for very much longer. Both the sentiments of US voters and the constraining overall size of the US military prevent that.

There has to be a drawdown. The only question is this: Will it start sooner and be relatively orderly, or will it be delayed and run an increasing risk of being chaotic? And yes, the scenarios now foreseeable do include – if the delay is too long – a humiliating emergency withdrawal reminiscent of the US evacuation from Saigon in 1975 and Allied forces' flight from Dunkirk in 1940.

Either way – whether the administration is able to fashion a policy that allows for a relatively speedy and orderly drawdown, or the drawdown is delayed and more like Dunkirk – it will need to engage in significant coordination with Iran if it is to avoid a debacle.

Recall that when the US moved its troops into position against Iraq in 1991 and again in 2003, it benefitted considerably from the connivance of both Iran and Syria with those anti-Saddam Hussein plans. Now, as the US seeks to reverse that massive movement of men and machines, it will require cooperation from Iran and all of Iraq's other neighbors (including Syria) as it does so.

The diplomatic offensive

The first 10 of the ISG's 79 recommendations stressed the urgency of launching a "New Diplomatic Offensive" over Iraq, and sketched out its broad outlines. The group – quite rightly – gave lower priority to other aspects of policy, such as details of the US military mission or internal Iraq reforms. Getting the regional diplomacy right, they understood, is the essential precondition for any possibility of success in other domains.

Their first recommendation stated that the new diplomatic offensive should start before the end of the year. The second spelled out the key goal of having all of Iraq's neighbors recommit to the unity and territorial integrity of Iraq.

Talking to Syria – and Iran

The report then called for the creation of an International Iraq Support Group, which would include Iraq, its neighbors, and other globally influential actors. It urged that under this group's aegis, the US "should engage directly with Iran and Syria in order to try to obtain their commitment to constructive policies toward Iraq and other regional issues." It also argued that the dispute over Iran's nuclear program should still be dealt with on its existing, and noticeably separate, track.

The ISG's stress on the need to reach out to Iran and Syria has met some impassioned criticism. Some people argue that it is simply wrong to talk with governments they judge to be "evil." Some argue that, being so "evil," Iran and Syria have no interest in trying to stop the deterioration in Iraq.

Some claim that even if the two states wanted to do this, there is not that much they could do anyway. Others argue that while it might be worth trying to engage with Syria, still, Iran remains so evil that it would be both wrong and quite unproductive to talk with it.

Such criticisms, however, completely miss the main point the ISG report makes, which is that to avoid a complete debacle inside Iraq, the US urgently needs to talk to Iran (and all the rest of Iraq's neighbors, too.) Is today's Tehran, with its weird and potentially dangerous president making horrendous threats against Israel and questioning the facts of the Holocaust, too completely evil to talk to? Well, consider this: Unlike today's Iran, the Soviet Union uttered dire threats against the US itself – and also had the means to make good on those threats. Even during the worst days of the cold war, however, US governments of both parties maintained constant diplomatic contact with Moscow. And thank goodness they did.

Now, if the Bush administration wants to stop the unacceptable loss of American and Iraqi lives, if it wants to avoid the very real threat of a greater military disaster in Iraq, and if it wants to give the Iraqi people any hope of regaining their country's security, then it needs to start talking urgently to Iran. There is no other way.

Today, Washington and Tehran each have urgent needs that only the other can meet. The basis for productive diplomacy exists.

Helena Cobban is the author of "Amnesty after Atrocity? Healing Nations after Genocide and War Crimes."

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