The final arbiter of Iran's foreign policy, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (Wikimedia Commons)

November 05, 2011

The Iranians Certainly Think They've Won in Iraq

Originally published in National Review Online: The Corner

Efforts by the Obama administration and its allies to paint the failure to achieve an agreement for which they have been actively negotiating as a success in Iraq are unimpressive in themselves. Their argument, stated most cogently by one of the lead negotiators of both this and the previous accord with Iraq, Brett McGurk, is roughly that the negotiations themselves revealed the new maturity and independence of Iraqi politics. That new maturity and independence, they argue, unfortunately led to the inability of both sides to agree on language granting American troops immunity from Iraqi laws, and, therefore, to the scuttling of the negotiations. McGurk argues explicitly that the failure of the negotiations did not result from Iranian pressure or interference, but rather proves the success of policies in Iraq to date.

It’s very odd, of course, to hear that the maturity of Iraq’s politics makes it impossible for the U.S. to reach an accord with Baghdad on an issue that has been satisfactorily resolved by agreements with Britain, Germany, Japan, South Korea, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Turkey, and many other countries in which American military forces are present. It is even harder to understand the repeated administration claims that Iran played no significant role in this decision, despite enormous evidence to the contrary (detailed here) and the ongoing Iranian militia campaigns, assassination campaigns, and intimidation campaigns in Iraq and around the region.

Setting these disagreements aside, though, we must reckon with an unpleasant reality: Whether we ultimately persuade ourselves that failing to extend the U.S. troop presence in Iraq was a victory for the U.S., the Iranians are certain that it was a victory for them. Considerthe following recent statements by Iranian leaders and military officials after the president’s announcement that the talks were over:

“Today America has been defeated in Afghanistan and Iraq, and it has no choice but [to] leave these two countries. And it has also been defeated in North Africa.” – Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, November 2

“In spite of the military and political presence of America in Iraq, all Iraqi people — including Kurds and Arabs, Shia and Sunni — said ‘no’ to America and this is a very important point.”  – Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, October 30

Referring to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s remarks that Iran should refrain from meddling in Iraq following the American troop withdrawal, Iranian defense minister Ahmad Vahidi said the “occupiers of Iraq” have been forced to leave the country and that their “meddlesome remarks stem from their deep fear of seeing the two nations (Iraq and Iran) united.”  

“Proposing to strengthen [the] American military presence in the Persian Gulf [by Washington] is out of desperation and [is being proposed] only to compensate for the defeat resulting from its pullout from Iraq.” — Iranian defense minister Ahmad Vahidi, November 2

“The American soldiers had no other choice than to leave Iraq, and this is the beginning of all American forces withdrawing from the region and the people’s intolerance of these ambassadors of death, colonialism, and plundering. Even if the Americans retreat from Iraq and Afghanistan, their problems will not be pushed aside, and the American people will force their government to retreat from the region completely and permanently.” – Chief of the Iranian general staff, Hassan Firouzabadi, October 26

“There is no [longer] any secure place for the U.S. and its puppets and allies. . . . They do not dare to be present in the Islamic territories and they are forced to travel secretly.” – IRGC Deputy Commander Hossein Salami, 1 November

“If the U.S. could deploy its troops in several parts of the world, it would not withdraw from Iraq. . . . But now it has no more room to continue its presence neither in Iraq, nor in the entire region due to the growing spread of Islamic awakening among nations.”  – Iranian foreign-ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast, October 24

Lebanese Hezbollah secretary general “Hassan Nasrallah has described the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq as a historic defeat for the U.S. and a true victory for Iraqis. . . . In a televised interview, Nasrallah said on Monday that Iraqis owe this remarkable achievementto the resistance groups, adding that U.S. troops would have stayed in the country if they had felt secure. . . . He also compared U.S. pullout from Iraq to the withdrawal of Israeli troops from southern Lebanon.” October 25

(See Will Fulton and Maseh Zarif, “Iranian Reactions to U.S. Withdrawal from Iraq,” 4 November 2011 for sources and more quotations. This product will be updated as new comments become available.)

Administration allies are also arguing, of course, that if — and they don’t admit this — Iraq is being thrown into the hands of Tehran, it is the fault of Bush and the “neo-cons” for invading Iraq in the first place. That argument is also false — Iraqis had been resisting Iranian pressure, had been fighting Iranian militias, and had made a number of important political decisions despite enormous Iranian efforts to prevent them from doing so — while 40,000 American troops were in Iraq and negotiations were continuing to extend the presence of a much smaller number. But no one in the Bush administration or among the advocates of the surge long ago thought that Iraq would be ready and able to stand up to such Iranian pressure without continued active American support this soon, and — the Pollyannaish protestations of administration supporters aside — Iraq is not, in fact, able to stand up to Iran now by itself.

That argument about who’s to blame, however, is also beside the point for those who really care about American national-security interests in Iraq and the Middle East. If partisan political bickering prevents us from recognizing the reality that Iran really has scored an important and damaging victory over the United States in Iraq through the failure of the these negotiations to extend our troop presence, then the prospects for any intelligent strategy to respond to that failure are dim indeed.