Analysis & Opinions - The Boston Globe

Exiting via Iran

| Jan. 14, 2007

For the United States, the road out of Iraq runs through Tehran. The only way to promote sustainable peace, stability, and order in Iraq is to forge an unholy alliance with Iran -- and accept Iran's dominant influence in the Middle East. Only by accepting Iranian hegemonic pretensions, odious as they are, can the United States extricate itself somewhat honorably from Iraq.

Washington in 2007 has a limited set of choices. Recognizing Iran as part of the solution rather than part of the problem would be an advance. Iran wants respect, above all, but it also wants to be accepted as a regional power. Trying to accommodate Iran's needs was once unthinkable but is now the best answer to the Iraqi dilemma.

An alliance with Iran would recognize that the toppling of Saddam Hussein not only freed Iraq's Shi'ite majority from a long period of Sunni dominance; it also empowered Shi'ites throughout the central Middle East, shifted the sectarian balance of power profoundly, and aroused Shi'ites in Lebanon and elsewhere to take charge of their confessional and human destinies in new ways. What we sowed, we now reap.

Washington is appropriately worried by the result. But a ginger embrace would enlist Iran on the side of reducing ethnic strife in Baghdad and southern Iraq. If Iran, accused of funding and fomenting the Shi'ite militias, could dampen its enthusiasm for mayhem, so Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni powers could be prevailed upon to assist in reducing the Iraqi Sunni militancy. Any reduction in sectarian clashes should enable US and Iraqi forces to focus on the less dangerous Al Qaeda-related insurgency that now runs beneath the growing sectarian violence. Then we could slowly reduce US troop levels and leave. No "surge" would be required or desirable.

There are few other viable options. The war, as it is being fought today, cannot be won even under the Bush-McCain option -- a surge of many more troops. Nor can we expect the Iraqi government to clamp down on Shi'ite militias and the daily horrors over which it has very little control. Only rigid curfews and districtwide lockdowns will make any difference now in Baghdad.

The flawed partnership among the United States and Europe and the government of Nouri al-Maliki will not succeed in ending violence in the next six months or so, because Iraq is too corrupt, its state institutions function too poorly, and its society is too riven by the sectarian rivalries that the US invasion unwittingly unleashed. Medium- and long-term prospects for reducing killings, stemming massive emigration from Iraq, and maintaining Western voters' patience look no better.

Yet if the United States and Iran were allied in seeking stability in Iraq, a range of new choices becomes thinkable. True, such an alliance would cede power in Iraq to Shi'ite leaders who would be backed by Iran. But it would also permit Iraqi Shi'ites to separate their interests from Iran's. That possibility is hard to realize so long as Iraqi Shi'ite leaders are struggling to win a civil war in Iraq with clandestine Iranian assistance.

Admittedly, recognizing Iran's central role would alarm the Kurds, and probably lead to a split of Iraq into separate Shi'ite, Sunni, and Kurdish sections. But by creating two stable and secure provinces (the Shi'ite south and the Kurdish north), and perhaps a third, Iraqis might soon experience less loss of life and better social and economic prospects.

Iran might also be able to assist in extricating US forces now bogged down in Baghdad. That city cannot easily be sliced into three sections. Nor will it be easy to apportion Kirkuk and oil revenues. But with Iran on the side of security and stability -- both of which are in its interest -- Iraq's majority could conceivably be persuaded to bargain with Sunni and Kurdish leaders.

Embracing Iran would have significant costs. US leaders would have to accept that Iran's position as a substantial regional power is secure. The United States would forfeit the immediate opportunity to foster a democratic environment in Iraq, though democracy might remain a longer-term option. Such an alliance would not help eliminate the nuclear threat from Iran. But that possibility now seems distant, anyhow.

Rejecting the inevitable -- Iran's prominent position -- will result in much more bloodshed and lost time. Without talking to Iran and coming to a cynical but necessary understanding, Iraqis and US forces will only thrash their way deeper into an interminable quagmire.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Rotberg, Robert I..“Exiting via Iran.” The Boston Globe, January 14, 2007.

The Author