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IRQ Secur Conf 1 May 07

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The Iraq Security Conference: Hanging a Deal on Faulty Assumptions

Kamran Bokhari , Stratfor: Geopolitical Intelligence Report, 1 May 07


After weeks of playing hard to get, Iran announced April 29 that

Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki will attend the May 3-4

conference in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh, where

Iraq's neighboring states and major world powers will explore ways

to stabilize Iraq. The same day, Iranian national security chief

Ali Larijani traveled to Baghdad on a surprise three-day visit

apparently aimed at discussing security and the upcoming conference

with Iraqi officials.


The United States welcomed Iran's decision to attend the

conference, calling it a "positive" development. Secretary of State

Condoleezza Rice hinted before Iran's announcement at the

possibility of meeting directly with Mottaki on the sidelines of

the conference. President George W. Bush later explained that Rice

and Mottaki could engage in bilateral talks within the context of

the multilateral event, though he ruled out separate public-level

talks between Tehran and Washington. Things still could go wrong

before May 3, and Mottaki could decide against attending the

conference, but for now it looks like he will show up. Deputy

Foreign Minister Mehdi Mostafavi said May 1 that, while Iran is

ready to hold "discussions" with the United States, the conditions

are not appropriate for negotiations.


The potential open engagement between the United States and Iran at

the foreign ministry level would be the culmination of back-channel

negotiations that started even before the United States led the

invasion of Iraq. In other words, the Bush administration -- long

after having scrapped its original deal with Tehran on the makeup

of a post-war Iraqi government -- has reached a preliminary

understanding with Iran's clerical regime on how the two sides will

proceed with regard to stabilizing Iraq in the wake of the

unexpected Sunni insurgency, the subsequent sectarian war and the

involvement of Arab Sunni states in the fray.


The Sharm el-Sheikh conference, then, represents the launch of the

formal process of hammering out a complex, multi-party deal to

piece together the Humpty Dumpty that is Iraq.


The U.S.-Iranian back-channel talks were never going to result in a

deal on how to divide Iraq; rather, they were a way for Washington

and Tehran to work out their respective concerns about a future

post-Baathist Iraq before taking the problem to the wider forum.

The back-channel talks, which provide the context for the

multilateral conference, will continue -- though the real deal will

likely emerge from this wider forum.


Throughout the years of behind-the-scenes talks, the two sides have

been unable to reach an understanding that balances the concerns of

both with regard to Iraq's future. Iran does not want an Iraq with

close ties to the United States -- one that threatens Iranian

national security and Tehran's regional aspirations. Conversely,

the United States does not want to see an Iraq dominated by Iran --

a situation that would allow Tehran to threaten the Arab states in

the Persian Gulf/Arabian Peninsula, and thus U.S. regional

interests. Moreover, the involvement of Sunni Arab states that feel

threatened by the rise of Iran and its Shiite Arab allies has

further complicated U.S.-Iranian dealings. Saudi Arabia, which has

emerged as the leader of the Arab world, has been spearheading the

move to counter Iran.


Complications aside, the Saudi efforts to insert themselves into

the equation have given Washington a tool with which to counter

Iranian moves. In fact, just as the Bush administration has used

the Iraqi Sunni card to rein in the country's Shia (Washington has

signaled to the Shia that it is willing to cut deals with the

Sunnis, especially the Baathists), it has leveraged its alignment

with the Arab states to contain the Iranians. While the United

States needs Iranian cooperation to stabilize Iraq, the Iranians

also need the United States to ensure that the Arab states and

their Iraqi Sunni allies will not threaten Iranian interests.


The upcoming conference, therefore, is immensely important to all

sides. The meeting represents a formal acknowledgement by all

parties of the sphere of influence the Iranians and the Saudis will

have in Iraq. Both Riyadh and Tehran want assurances that each

other's respective proxies -- the Shiite militias and the Sunni

insurgents -- will be restrained from creating security issues for

them. In recent weeks, the Iranians have demonstrated they can get

Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr's militia, the Mehdi Army, to more or

less go along with the security plan. On the other hand, the Saudi

announcement of the arrests of jihadist militants and the seizure

of large sums of cash and weapons was meant as a reciprocating

message that Riyadh, too, can rein in the jihadists who threaten

the Shia -- and, by extension, the Iranian position in Iraq.


The general understanding has been that a U.S.-Saudi-Iranian deal

could help stabilize Iraq -- the assumption being that Riyadh and

Tehran have the ability to rein in their respective militias and

insurgents in Iraq. Although ending the violence is beyond either

country's ability, the Saudis and the Iranians are letting on that

they can contain their fighters -- for a price. The Saudis want to

ensure that Iraq's Sunni community has a sufficient share of the

political pie in Baghdad so that, even with Shiite domination of

the Iraqi state, the Iranians could not use Iraq as a military

springboard into the Arabian Peninsula. For their part, the

Iranians want assurances that the Sunni minority in Iraq never

again will be in a position to threaten Iran's national security.

More than that, however, the Islamic republic would like to be able

to use its influence to pull strings within the Iraqi

Shiite-dominated government.


This is the dilemma that faces the United States and the Sunni Arab

states. They want to figure out how to acknowledge Iranian

influence in Iraq's affairs, but still prevent Tehran from using

such influence to enhance its power. Iraq's ethno-sectarian

demography -- it is only approximately 20 percent Sunni -- is what

scares Washington and its Arab allies. They are hoping, then, that

ensuring the Sunnis a sufficient share of the Iraqi government will

serve to check the Iranian/Shiite rise. To achieve that goal,

however, the United States and Saudi Arabia would have to make a

major reciprocal concession: acknowledging that a larger share of

the pie will be in the hands of the Shia. This is one of the key

reasons why reining in the Shiite militias has become a

prerequisite for containing the Sunni insurgency.


This brings us back to the Sharm el-Sheikh conference, where Tehran

is hoping the United States and its Arab allies acknowledge Iranian

interests in Iraq in exchange for Iran's willingness to restrain

the Shiite militias. The Arabs are willing to give Tehran the

recognition it wants, though they are operating from a position of

relative weakness and cannot trust that Iran would not use a

relatively stable Iraq to extend its influence across the Persian



Furthermore, although the Bush administration is downplaying the

possibility, the Arabs are concerned that the political pendulum in

the United States is swinging heavily in favor of an early pullout

-- or major drawdown -- of coalition forces from Iraq. Since, in

the long run, they cannot trust Washington to underwrite a deal

with the Iranians, the Arabs are hesitant to sign a document that

would effectively give Iran the room to maneuver as it pleases.

This is the root of the Saudi reluctance to use its influence among

the Iraqi Sunnis to help contain sectarian violence.


More important, however, Iraq's Sunni and Shiite communities are so

internally factionalized (the Shia to a greater extent) that

neither Tehran nor Riyadh is likely to succeed in shutting down the

militancy. Moreover, the multiplicity of Shiite political and

militant factions makes it difficult for Iran to keep all of them

happy -- and thus on board with any deal it might be willing to

cut. The continuing strife in the Shiite south, especially in the

oil-rich city of Basra, is but one example of the problems the

Iranians face in this regard.


Similarly, the Saudis cannot claim to speak for all the Sunnis. But

even more problematic for Riyadh is that its best weapon against

the Iranians is the jihadists, especially those affiliated with al

Qaeda -- precisely those who pose a major national security threat

to the Saudi kingdom.


The question, then, is whether the Saudis and the Iranians can

actually deliver on a triangular deal involving each of them and

the third main state actor in Iraq -- the United States. It would

appear that their fears over their respective interests have forced

them to deal with one another despite their apprehensions.


Ultimately, however, the three big players are negotiating a

security deal that rests on the faulty assumptions that each side

has enough sway over the various factions inside Iraq to make an

agreement actually work.

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