Wall Street Journal: The Pentagon and State Department, long divided over the conduct of the Iraq war and reconstruction there, have a new point of contention: Iran, and how much credit it deserves for recent security improvements in Iraq. The Wall Street Journal
Diplomats Credit Tehran For Improvement in Iraq, But Pentagon Is Reserved
By YOCHI J. DREAZEN and JAY SOLOMON
December 26, 2007; Page A3
WASHINGTON — The Pentagon and State Department, long divided over the conduct of the Iraq war and reconstruction there, have a new point of contention: Iran, and how much credit it deserves for recent security improvements in Iraq.
The split reflects the lingering U.S. uncertainty about how to interpret a sharp decline in the number of attacks inside Iraq featuring a powerful armor-piercing bomb that American officials have long linked to Iran. Attacks have fallen by more than 50% in recent months, with a subsequent drop in U.S. military casualties.
Within the State Department, an array of senior officials say they now believe that the Iranian government is taking steps to curb the flow of such advanced weaponry into Iraq and to pressure the country’s largest Shiite militia, Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, to honor a shaky cease-fire with the U.S. Some of these officials say Washington should begin broader diplomatic talks with Tehran in response.
At the Pentagon, however, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and several of his top aides say it is too soon to conclude that Tehran has made a strategic decision to change its behavior in Iraq. Many in the military believe that the flow of Iranian weaponry is continuing, even if in reduced amounts, and that Shiite militants are stockpiling armaments for future use.
“We can see some clear signs that JAM is standing down,” a senior military official in Baghdad said, using the Arabic acronym for Mr. Sadr’s militia. “But once you get past the atmospherics, it’s hard to see clear signs that they’re standing down because Iran stopped giving them new toys to use against us.”
The dispute carries significant implications for future U.S. policy toward Iran. A number of State Department officials are pushing for a diplomatic outreach to Iran, arguing that Iranian security assistance in Iraq could be the basis for a broader improvement in the chilly relationship between Washington and Tehran.
Pentagon officials, by contrast, are urging a go-slow approach, arguing that the U.S. should wait for clearer evidence that Iran has made a lasting decision to help stabilize Iraq before beginning broader talks with Tehran.
Vali Nasr, an Iran expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, a nonpartisan New York-based think tank, says that the U.S. and Iran now have enough shared interests in Iraq to make direct talks worthwhile.
Mr. Nasr says that postwar Iraq has long posed a dilemma for Tehran. With more than 150,000 American troops stationed in Iraq, Iranian leaders may once have thought they needed to funnel weapons to Shiite militants inside Iraq to keep the U.S. preoccupied and stave off a possible U.S. strike on Iran, Mr. Nasr says.
But as a Shiite-dominated country, Iran also has close ties to the Shiites who have held power in Iraq since the 2003 U.S. invasion. That has convinced Iran’s rulers that they need to take steps to pull Iraq back from the brink of outright collapse, shore up the embattled Iraqi central government and keep the country’s competing Shiite militias from fighting each other for money and power, Mr. Nasr says.
The differences between the Pentagon and the State Department over Iran have come into clear view in recent days.
On Friday, Mr. Gates told reporters that he had “not yet” seen any persuasive evidence that Iran was trying to reduce the flow of weaponry into Iraq. A new Pentagon report about Iraq similarly concluded that there “was no identified decrease in Iranian training and funding of illegal Shia militias in Iraq.”
State Department officials have taken a very different tack. U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker told reporters in Baghdad on Sunday that there were “some indicators that the Iranians are using some influence to bring down violence from extremist Shia militias.” That echoed similar comments by David Satterfield, the top State Department official on Iraq.
The State Department’s praising of Iran’s recent activities in Iraq comes as the Bush administration attempts to recalibrate its policy toward Tehran following the release this month of a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate downgrading the threat posed by the Iranian nuclear program.
A number of U.S. officials acknowledged privately that the new intelligence estimate has undermined efforts to impose economic sanctions on Iran. But there is also a belief by some in the Bush administration that the intelligence estimate might provide an opening for the U.S. to engage more constructively with Iran over both its nuclear program and its activities in Iraq.
“It may create an opening for them” to talk with us, a Bush administration official said of the intelligence estimate. He said the two governments could each use the report as a face-saving tool to explain any new diplomatic talks.
Indeed, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice noticeably toned down her rhetoric toward Iran following the release of the intelligence report. In a news conference last week, Ms. Rice said that the U.S. “doesn’t have permanent enemies” and that she was “prepared to meet my [Iranian”> counterpart anyplace and anywhere,” provided Tehran suspends its uranium-enrichment activities.
A growing number of outside analysts believe that because of the intelligence estimate, Washington should no longer make Iran’s suspension of its nuclear program a precondition for broader talks. Several former U.S officials said they wouldn’t be surprised if the State Department ultimately agreed to talks even without such a suspension, given similar policy reversals by the White House toward North Korea and Syria.