Much as American and Iranian interests might seem to overlap in Iraq’s calamitous civil war, President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry must avoid any temptation to allow Iraq policy to be turned into a bargaining chip in the nuclear negotiations that recently resumed in Geneva.
Those negotiations are daunting enough when confined to core issues such as the number and types of centrifuges Iran might keep spinning, the stocks of low-enriched uranium it may retain, the intrusiveness of inspections, and the duration of any agreement reached. Bringing the violent unraveling of Iraq into the Geneva talks would almost certainly increase the difficulty of reaching a sound and durable agreement.
If Iran were to offer cooperation with the United States in Iraq as a quid pro quo for being able to operate a large number of advanced centrifuges or for limiting the term of a comprehensive nuclear accord to a mere five years, Iranian leaders would be trading something Obama should not value too highly for US concessions that could vitiate the non-proliferation purpose of the Geneva talks.
Obama has been criticized by some Republicans for decisions they say led to the current crises in Iraq and Syria, but any errors he may have committed pale in comparison to the blunders perpetrated by the deciders in Tehran. If Shiites all across the Middle East are threatened today by bloodthirsty Sunni fanatics, the first steps along the path toward sectarian warfare were taken by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard commanders and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. When they decided it was in Iran’s strategic interest to do whatever was needed to preserve the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad, they opened the gates of hell.
Officers from Iran’s Quds Force, Iran’s Lebanese loyalists in Hezbollah, and Shiite militias from Iraq were sent to Syria to preserve the Assad regime from the Syrian uprising. The Iranian goal was to maintain a path of influence that ran across Shiite-ruled Iraq, to Alawite-ruled Syria, and on to Lebanon, where Shiite Hezbollah has become a separate army within a perpetually weak state.
But the Iranian regime is now paying a steep price for what it originally took to be strategic shrewdness. Throughout the Sunni Arab world, Iranians, and Shiites more generally, are commonly blamed for backing Assad in the bombing of schools and bakeries, for the horrific torture and murder of political prisoners, and for causing nearly half of Syria’s population to flee their homes.
It was in Syria’s gruesome war that the fanatical Islamic State of Iraq and Syria was enabled to flourish. Indeed, Assad released some ISIS jihadists from prison early on, assuming, correctly, that they would spend more time fighting other groups in the opposition than in battling the regime.
Besides creating in Syria the conditions for the rise of ISIS and the onset of sectarian warfare, Iranian leaders selected and backed the catastrophic sectarian government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. They insisted that Maliki not sign an agreement with the United States that would have kept a residual force of American military advisers in Iraq.
America has a profound interest in reaching an agreement that prevents Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability for the next 15 or 20 years. America has a comparable interest in preventing a group such as ISIS from acquiring the wealth, weapons, and territory of a disintegrating Iraqi state. But Washington has no interest in aligning with the rulers of Iran in a regional and sectarian conflagration the Iranians helped set aflame.
If anything, the regional pressures now building up against the Iranian regime ought to make its rulers more eager than ever to strike a nuclear deal and to have the financial and energy sanctions crushing the Iranian economy definitively removed. Obama is holding all the best cards in Geneva. The Iranian negotiators may have much to ask Washington for in Iraq, but they have very little to offer.
Obama would be wise to offer public assurances to Tehran that sanctions are not meant to induce regime change but only a sound nuclear deal. And he would be wiser still if he made sure Iran cannot trade commitments on Iraq for concessions on its nuclear program.