02 March 2009

Withdrawing from Iraq - don't forget Iran

President Obama’s announcement on the weekend that American troops will cease combat operations in Iraq in August 2010 and that most American troops will be withdrawn by 2011 is to be welcomed. At the same time, it needs to be recognised that managing a withdrawal to this or any timetable is tricky to manage. Much can go wrong.

The setting of a deadline makes it all the more urgent for the United States to normalise its relations with Iran. Iran has the capability to derail the process, in a deniable way if need be, in a more open way if it chooses.

My reading of the Iranians is that they would prefer not to be driven in this direction. Iran has a clear national interest in having a peaceful, prosperous and stable Iraqi neighbour, and there are many in Iran who would welcome a more constructive relationship with the United States. But Iran has other national interests, one of the more important ones being the deterrence of attacks on its territory, from any quarter.

This means that the United States needs to switch off all talk of military action against Iran, and ensure that Israel does likewise. As matters stand at present, Iranian defence planners must take seriously the steady drumbeat of talk about military strikes, or the Bush Administration’s “all options are on the table” stance, and prepare themselves accordingly.

There is not much of a price to be paid for setting the military strike option aside, because the scenarios for a successful attack, even for the limited aim of setting back Iran’s nuclear development, are hard to conjure up and much of the rhetoric has to be dismissed as frivolous and ill-informed. We are talking about attacking a country that is almost the size of Queensland, with a population of 66 million, and widely dispersed nuclear and military sites. We know where some of them are, but not necessarily all. The known nuclear sites are widely dispersed and it would be hard for the United States to take them all out, let alone for Israel to do so. And Iran has various defensive and retaliatory options at its disposal.

There is an equally urgent need in this context to make progress on the Palestinian front. It is hard to see the Iranian regime walking away from its long-standing public positions on the plight of the Palestinians. For the normalisation of US-Iranian relations there will need to be meaningful progress not only on some kind of vague promise of a two-state solution in the dim distant future, but on the prompt and enduring normalisation of the daily life of ordinary Palestinians.

This means that the US-Iran relations issue is a triangular one, not simply a matter between the United States and Iran. President Obama is going to have to have a pretty straight conversation with Mr Netanyahu before long. If, as seems likely, Mr Netanyahu has to search for a solution that will satisfy the requirements of Mr Avigdor Lieberman as well as President Obama, then his life is about to become very interesting.

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