Tuesday, November 18, 2008

So what's the deal with the US SOFA in Iraq?

First, let me point you to some other analyses about the SOFA: Juan Cole,Robert Dreyfuss, Stratfor and Pepe Escobar.

Reading through these analyses I amazed that nobody seems to be very concerned about the fact that the final text has still not been leaked. It will, probably before the end of the week, but for the time being everybody is commenting mostly on the basis of what can only be called hearsay. Still, whatever the fine print of the SOFA is, a number of elements in it appear to be quasi-certain. According to the SOFA,

  • The USA will have to give up the ideas of permanent bases
  • The USA will not be able to launch military operations from Iraq on other countries
  • The USA will be out of Iraq by 2011

There is more stuff than that, but the rest is mostly "fluff" (for example, nobody seriously expects the USA to place any of its forces under Iraqi authority).

So who 'won' here? Did the Maliki government obtain major concessions from the USA?

Frankly, I am not impressed. Not one bit.

First, there defenders of the SOFA are trying to present as a huge victory that the US will not be able to station bases in Iraq. That is no victory at all. Consider this:

De jure, First, the UN mandate expires in December and after that the US would, theoretically need to get out anyway.

De facto, the US is bankrupt and regardless of its imperial hubris it does not have the means so sustain an occupation which costs the taxpayer anywhere from a billion a day to several trillions over time.

So what does this SOFA achieve on getting the USA out of Iraq? Nothing. Nothing for the Iraqis, that is.

For the Americans is gives them three years to withdraw in an organized and planned fashion. Is that in the interests of the Iraqi people? That is for them to decide, of course, but I for one thing would have preferred a panicked "run for our lives" similar to what happened when the Vietnamese booted out the Empire out of their country, with the last folks jumping into helicopters from the roof the US embassy. That kind of image is *priceless* in hammering into the minds of the (mostly militaristic) American people the basic truth that wars are dangerous, costly, and not so easily won. What does the SOFA do in this respect? It allow the USA to do what it loves to do: declare victory and leave. Why give them this present?

Score on this one: USA 1, Iraq 0

Now let's look at the second "victory": the guarantee that the US will not launch military operations from Iraq.

Let's us just use basic common sense here. Let's say that the Americans decide to bomb some construction site in Syria or an empty building in Khorramshar (the usual "terrorist bases" the Americans love to destroy). What will the Iraqis do in response? They will protest, no doubt. And what will the Americans answer to the Iraqi protests? "Sue me!", of course.

The fact that the USA has no problems violating international law in all its aspects and that it would be naive in the extreme to expect it to abide by the terms of a SOFA signed with a puppet government whose survival depends on American protection in the first place.

Score card so far: USA 2, Iraq 0

Let's look at the last "victory". The USA will be out of Iraq by 2011. Last time I checked, Obama promised to be out in 16 months, so what the Maliki cabinet is giving him is *more* time to stay in Iraq, hardly something to be proud of.

Final score card: USA 3, Iraq 0.

I would also add the following: a SOFA is not an international treaty and the USA has absolutely no legal obligation to abide by its provisions. An international treaty has to be ratified by Congress after which, and only after which, it becomes the Law of the Land in the USA. Not so with a SOFA whose exact terms are often kept secret to begin with.

No matter how you look at it, the SOFA gives the Iraqis absolutely nothing while providing the USA with a desperately needed figleaf to hide is abject failure in Iraq and that begs the question of why al-Sistani and the Iranians are not overly opposing it like the Sadrists do.

I don't know enough about al-Sistani to speculate about his motives. The little I know about him leaves me utterly unimpressed by his attitude. Sure, being "above the crowd" does look noble and majestic, but when your country is being raped, pillaged and destroyed and when more of your fellow Iraqis have been killed then in the Cambodian and Rwandan genocides this kind of lofty silence does not look so noble at all, at least to me.

What about the Iranians?

The idea is being floated out there about some kind of bargain being made between the Iranians and the new Obama administration and I have to say that this seems plausible to me. For many years the Iranians have tried to reach some deal with the USA and only the amazing stupidity of the Neocons prevented any kind of deal from being made. There is, however, another explanation which seems far more likely, at least to me.

Iran is not the unitary actor which the Western media likes to say it is. The fact is that the Iranian political system is extremely decentralized, with plenty of different centers of power and that the Iranian society in general, and the Iranian political scene in particular, is composed of many different factions with often radically opposed views and agendas. To make things worse, or better - depending on your outlook, there is an upcoming Presidential election in Iran, and considering the, shall we say, less than stellar performance of President Ahmadinejad, this election will be highly contested. As a result, politicians in Iran are walking a very fine line with the situation in Iraq. On one hand, to openly criticize the Maliki government might alienate some Shia factions in Iran (and Iraq), but on the other hand not criticising this SOFA, or the generally collaborationist attitude of the Maliki government, might alienate other Shia factions. One has to also consider the objective options Iran has.

Taking an openly "Sadrist" position is guaranteed to finally push Maliki and the rest of his cabinet in the arms of the American and leave the Iranians with only one potential ally in Iraq: al-Sadr himself. I don't know what the assessment of al-Sadr is in Tehran, but I would most definitely not want to rely on this character for my policy towards Iraq. The fundamental reality for the Iranian is this:

While Iran has plenty of power and influence in Iraq, it does not have any reliable allies. In other words, there is no "Iraqi Hezbollah" or "Iraqi Hassan Nasrallah". That is the crucial dilemma, the most painful headache for the Iranians and their stance towards Iraq.

The devil's choice of "Maliki versus Sadr" leaves only one viable option for the Iranians: not to decide at all. It is far more advantageous for the Iranians to play one against the other since that maximizes Iran's influence over the developments in Iraq and it allows them time to seek out and groom a much needed *trustworthy* partner in Iraq.

In the meantime, this dilemma explains the rather bland mix of reservations and tacit understanding which we see coming out of Iran on the topic of the SOFA. I have no doubt whatsoever that Tehran fully understands that Maliki and his cohorts are for sale to the highest bidder. Likewise, the Iranians also fully understand that Sadr is too inconsistent and too unreliable to bet on him. Thus, they are stuck in a very dangerous role of being always halfway here and halfway there.

This is a very dangerous place to be in for the Iranians. First, it makes them look unprincipled and cynical. I bet you that all the arguments about the lack of good allies don't look one bit convincing to the average Iraqi. Second, but not being able to articulate a clear position, Iran risks alienating every major faction in Iraq. "Divide and conquer" can be an effective technique for the short to middle term, but for the long term it never makes you popular and the risk of blowback are very real.

Of course, Iran could try to do what the Americans do in so many countries and create a political force ex nihilo, but think about this: has this tactic every worked?! I can't think of a single case.

Iran did not "create" Hezbollah. Hezbollah really created itself. All the Iranians did was to correctly identify it as a trustworthy partner and support it. That is, alas, not an option which Iran has in Iraq, at least for the time being.

The political realities on the ground in Iraq being what they are, I expect the chaos and bloodshed to continue for the foreseeable future.

The Saker