Saturday, January 13, 2007

U.S. needs help of Syria and Iran, analysts in Middle East say

Iraq neighbors' assistance would carry a high price
- Robert Collier, Chronicle Staff Writer
Friday, January 12, 2007

By accusing Iran and Syria of supporting Iraq's terrorists and insurgents Wednesday night, President Bush inadvertently highlighted a key stumbling block to peace -- the difficulty of reconciling the rival Sunnis and Shiites without also sitting down face-to-face with the Tehran and Damascus governments.

In his speech, Bush signaled a newly confrontational stance against Iran, accusing it of funneling arms to Iraqi militias and announcing that an aircraft carrier group was being sent to the Persian Gulf.

But in telephone interviews with The Chronicle, analysts in Baghdad, Tehran and Damascus said Bush is playing a losing hand. Because the United States has been unable to bludgeon Iraq's Sunni-led insurgency or Shiite militias into obedience, they said, it must seek the cooperation of the Iranian and Syrian governments.

"Iran could be able to bring the militias into line, but it would require a high price from the United States," said Wamidh Nadhmi, a political science professor at Baghdad University who is a leader of the National Foundation Conference of Resistance to the Occupation, a coalition of Sunni, Shiite and secular groups.

Marwan al-Kabalan, a professor in media and international relations at Damascus University, said that Syria "hopes that the United States will eventually agree to some sort of a quid-pro-quo deal ... to make sure that no enemy (of Syria) controls next-door Lebanon."

Meeting any part of the Iranian or Syrian wish lists would be an embarrassing turnaround for Bush. His administration imposed new financial sanctions on Iran this week because of its uranium-enrichment program, and U.S. officials have accused Syria of attempting to engineer a Hezbollah-led overthrow of the Lebanese government.

Chief among Syria's list of demands, said Sami Moubayed, a professor of international relations at al-Kalamoun University in Damascus, are an end to U.S. sanctions against Syria and pressure on Israel to return the Golan Heights.

Iran has its own range of demands, said Nasser Hadian, a political scientist at Tehran University. He cited the nuclear dispute, U.S. complaints of Iranian aid to Hezbollah and Hamas, and Iran's desire for a guarantee that it will not be attacked militarily by the United States or Israel.

Two authoritative reports last month on Bush's choices in Iraq advocated extending olive branches to Iran and Syria. The bipartisan Iraq Study Group recommended that the U.S. government seek assistance from both countries, although the group's report said those contacts should not address the disputes over Iran's nuclear program or Syria's role in Lebanon.

A blunter recommendation came from the International Crisis Group, an influential Brussels-based think tank that is funded mainly by Western governments, including the United States.

"Polite engagement of Iraq's neighbors will not do," the group said in a report issued Dec. 19. "For as long as the Bush administration's paradigm remains fixated around regime change, forcibly remodeling the Middle East, or waging a strategic struggle against an alleged axis composed of Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas, neither Damascus nor Tehran will be willing to offer genuine assistance."

Instead, the report said, Washington should offer concessions to gain Iran's and Syria's cooperation in getting Iraq's opposing sides to compromise on issues such as de-Baathification, prisoner amnesty and suppression of Sunni terrorists and Shiite death squads.

Iran has a significant level of control over the Badr Corps and some influence with the Mahdi Army, the two leading Shiite militias, while Syria has tribal links to some of the Sunni insurgent groups, the report said.

Persuading Tehran and Damascus to use this leverage to press for concessions would require U.S. attention to some, but not all, of their demands, analysts say.

As a first step, the Iranian government probably would want the U.S. president to demonstrate goodwill by lifting sanctions on Iranian banks and businesses, Hadian said.

"Iran would have to be sure that this isn't just a tactical move by the United States to get out of its problem in Iraq so that it can then go ahead and attack Iran," he said.

Siamak Namazi, managing director of Atieh Bahar Consulting, a Tehran firm that advises foreign investors, said that Iran has a vested interest in promoting peace in Iraq. "Chaos in Iraq will have dire consequences for us -- refugees, border insecurities, regional power maneuvering, potential rise of separatist issues, etc.," he said.

In Iraq, neither the Sunni insurgents nor the Shiite militias appear eager for their foreign patrons to start twisting arms.

In an interview with a Chronicle correspondent in Iraq, a former division general of the Republican Guard, Saddam Hussein's most elite military corps, dismissed the widespread assumption that Syria's tribal links to the Sunni-led insurgents would give it leverage.

"We still remember how Syria sided with Iran during the Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s, when they closed the Iraqi oil pipeline passing through its territory and provided Iran with ground-to-ground missiles to attack Baghdad," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Mudhafar al-Amin, who was Iraq's ambassador to Britain from 1999 until the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, said the insurgents also would reject any involvement by Iran. "Iraq's basic problem is Iran, so how could it be a solution?" he said. "Iran has been trying to expand its influence in Iraq for centuries, and they still are doing so."

Many Iraqi Shiites are equally resistant to the possibility of pressure from next door.

"Iraqis are patriotic, and we don't like to be pressured," said Jawad al-Khalisi, a Shiite ayatollah in Baghdad who has tried to reconcile Shiite and Sunni radicals under a nationalist banner advocating U.S. troop withdrawal.

"Yes, Iran and Syria, and especially the United States, have influence, although we wish it weren't so. They can do everything, anything."

A Chronicle correspondent in Iraq, who requested anonymity for security reasons, contributed to this report. E-mail Robert Collier at

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