In August 2004, Robert Gates was asked to make his predictions on Iraq’s future. His answer was: “We have the old line in the intelligence business that everything we want to know is divided into two categories: secrets and mysteries [and] Iraq is very much the latter.
Now, following his appointment as the new US defense secretary, and his likely approval by the Senate, Gates is in the driving seat steering the administration toward a solution to the Iraq “mystery. At the same time, he has voiced strong opinions about how to solve the Iran “puzzle, saying that “the current lack of sustained engagement with Iran harms US interests in a critical region of the world … Direct dialogue with Tehran on specific areas of mutual concern should be pursued. The United States, he has said, should selectively engage Iran on issues where the interests of the two countries converge, “building upon incremental progress to tackle the broader range of concerns that divide the two governments. So, how might Gates handle the Iraqi and Iranian crises? On Iraq, Gates has limited options. He may have arrived too late, at a time when the situation seems to be beyond resolution. A complete US troop withdrawal would be very costly for Iraq, as well as for the region. It would also defeat a basic US objective in the Middle East, namely anti-terrorism, as Iraq is likely to split in three entities and end up under the control of extreme Sunni and Shiite groups in the south and center. Gates was not appointed to bring about such a scenario. Considering his background and experience as intelligence chief, he could tilt toward another recently circulated idea in the intelligence community: a military takeover by a group of trusted army officers in order to replace the current Iraqi government. This small circle of officers belonging to the disbanded Iraqi Army would reflect the various sectarian affiliations of Iraqi society. Similar to the scenario that the US adopted in Vietnam, this plan is based on an assumption that the officers would be able to impose effective control over Iraq with the support of the Americans, and that a new “strong leader drawn from strong central government could stabilize Iraq by declaring a state of emergency and suspending the democratic process. There is a downside to this option: the US would have to publicly abandon the process of democratization, but also, once the new military leadership is in power, there are no guarantees it would not develop into a tyrannical regime similar to Saddam Hussein’s. It is also uncertain that the US would then have a say in domestic developments in Iraq. A military takeover may stabilize Iraq in the short term, but spell uncertainty over the long term. A third scenario in line with Gates’ own views is centered on US engagement with Iran. In 2004, Gates stated that engagement with Iran was a possible alternative to confrontation since the unilateral policy adopted by the US to isolate Iran had not met with success: it had neither prevented Iran from establishing its nuclear program nor from interfering in Iraqi affairs. Iran is currently the only country that might be capable of influencing some extreme Iraqi Shiite groups to end their violence. However, given that the current violence also includes extremist Sunnis, Iran’s ability to push for stabilization is limited. Moreover, any closer US engagement with Iran will be viewed with caution by the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, which fear Iran as a new regional superpower.
Further, Gates’ vision of engaging Iran on the Iraq issue was tested on March 26 this year, when a team of American and Iranian officials met in Baghdad and tried to establish a dialogue to help resolve the Iraqi crisis. The conflict point that led to the final collapse of the talks was that of scope: American officials were hoping to focus on Iranian interference in Iraq, while Iran sought to discuss a range of issues that included Iraq, but also the nuclear file, US economic sanctions, and other matters. During the meeting, the two sides found that the gap between them was almost unbridgeable. This impression was further confirmed when Iranian Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that the only solution to the Iraqi crisis was a complete American withdrawal. Whether any new engagement with Iran and the revival of the March 2006 dialogue is possible depends on whether or not both sides are capable of changing their attitudes and objectives. So far, Iran’s role in Iraq has remained outside the parameters of the United Nations Security Council. However, under Gates’ leadership, the US might think of reviving the March 2006 dialogue offering the Iranians an opportunity to de-link the Iranian nuclear issue from the Iraq situation. The US could come to an agreement with Iran over Iraq, but also warn that if Iran fails to respect its conditions, Washington would internationalize the issue and seek a Security Council resolution to punish Tehran. It is hard to predict Gates’ course of action. He was a member of the Iraq Study Group that is currently preparing recommendations for a new US policy toward Iraq. However, now that he is part of the decision-making process, how Gates will work on the Iraqi mystery and how he will try to resolve the Iranian puzzle remain a secret.
Nicole Stracke is a researcher in the Security and Terrorism Program at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with the center.