There's one thing you have to admire about the Iranians – they always tell you just what they think of you. They never beat around the bush.
On Tuesday, the day after Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki completed his three-day visit to Iran, his envoy to the Islamic Republic received a care package – delivered to his front door. When Iraqi Ambassador Muhammad Majid al-Sheikh's driver opened the package, he discovered it was a bomb.
In their best Farsi imitation of the Godfather, Iranian police spokesmen claimed that the package was not a bomb – but aquarium equipment. And in a way, they were right. The package was supposed to help Sheikh "sleep with the fishes."
Just as is the case with their Syrian allies, the Iranians view assassination as the easiest way to "signal" their displeasure with diplomatic developments. In this case, clearly the Iranians were acting out after what they considered to be a deeply disturbing discourse with Maliki.
Until recently, Maliki was viewed with suspicion by many observers due to his apparently warm relations with Iran. Indeed, ahead of his visit, just to make sure he got the message, US military commanders in Iraq stated clearly that they hoped Maliki would protest the fact that Iran is the central engine of the now waning but still murderous insurgency in Iraq. The Iraqi people too, expected him to be clear about the untenable state of affairs where Iran wages war against Iraq through proxies on the one hand, and waxes poetic about its great friendship with Iraq on the other.
Writing in Iraq's Al-Dustour newspaper ahead of Maliki's visit, editor-in-chief Bassim al-Sheikh opined, "Maliki's delegation will be presenting the Iranian side with irrefutable evidence of Iranian interference in Iraqi domestic affairs. In this light, the visit could prove to be a watershed in Iraqi-Iranian relations, especially now… that the covert game Iran has been playing in Iraq has become all too overt, with very few hidden cards left in Teheran's hand."
Then too, Iraq's Al-Sabah al-Jadid editorialized, "Maliki's visit to Iran could be the last chance for a rational settlement of any differences and a final dissipation of any misunderstanding that may still exist between us and our big neighbor. There is nothing in the lexicon of political pragmatism that will help us evade the consequences of living next door to this neighbor, as recent history has shown with such clarity."
Media reports of the visit included no details of what Maliki told his Iranian hosts. But given their attempt to assassinate his ambassador the day after he left, it can be assumed that the Iranians were uninterested in "a rational settlement of any differences." And indeed, it can be assumed that Maliki didn't mince any words as he discussed the war Iran is waging against his people.
What the media reports of Maliki's visit did highlight was Iran's apoplectic response to Baghdad's current negotiations with the US toward an accord on the modalities of the long-term deployment of US forces in Iraq. The Iranians – from supreme mullah Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – were absolutely clear that from their perspective, if the Iraqis sign such an agreement, there will be hell to pay.
But the Iraqis have also been clear that they are interested in signing such an accord. While in its coverage of the negotiations, the Western media has concentrated on statements by Iranian-backed Iraqi lawmakers voicing their staunch opposition to the agreement, most Iraqis support it. They simply want to ensure that the agreement that is eventually signed protects their interests as a country. As Iraqi blogger Muhammad Fadhil noted last week in an article published on the Pajamas Media Web site, this is why the Iraqi government has "sent delegations to Germany, Japan and South Korea to listen to what they – and not the mullahs – have to say about [their experience with long-term US troop presence on their soil]."
The strategic agreement now being negotiated between the US and the Iraqi government is a watershed event. Five years after Saddam Hussein's terror-supporting, weapons of mass destruction-seeking regime was brought down by the US-led coalition, a democratically elected Iraqi government has emerged that views its strategic interests as aligned with the US's. Its forces are fighting side by side with US forces toward the shared goal of routing al-Qaida and Iranian-backed terror militias in Iraq. Indeed, in March, Maliki himself led the Iraqi assault on the Iranian controlled militias in Basra. Two months later, Iran had been routed not only in Basra, but in Sadr City in Baghdad where Iraqi and American forces fought side-by-side in street after street.
Although referred to as a security agreement, to all intents and purposes, the agreement that the US and Iraq are now negotiating is a peace agreement. As most political theorists will attest, peace agreements are contracts between countries with shared interests whose representatives sit down and write out how they will advance their shared interests together. So five years after the fall of Saddam, a multi-ethnic, multi-confessional democracy in Iraq has emerged that views the US as its primary ally.
This is what a strategic victory looks like.
NOT SURPRISINGLY, just as the meaning of developments in Iraq has escaped the notice of most Americans, so too, it has escaped the notice of most Israelis. And this is a shame for two reasons. First, it is a shame because Israel is missing out on the most significant development in our neighborhood since the Six Day War. And like the Six Day War, Operation Iraqi Freedom holds great opportunities for Israel. The second reason that Israel's almost complete ignorance of the significance of events in Iraq is a shame is because as Israel moves toward early elections, developments in Iraq point the way toward a new strategic framework for the next Israeli government to base its policy-making on.
For months, US commanders in Iraq have been saying that the Iraqi people cannot abide the Iranians, the Syrians or the Saudis. They know that these countries have been the chief sponsors of the insurgencies that have killed tens of thousands of Iraqi citizens over the past five years. From the mass graves of al-Qaida victims in Diyala Province to the death squads of Iranian-backed militias in Basra, the Iraqis know that these countries have acted with malice aforethought in their actions aimed at transforming Iraq into a massive killing field.
For Israeli ears, what is striking about the Iraqi discourse is the near total absence of anti-Israel or anti-Semitic propaganda. Indeed, there is no discussion about Israel at all. From the 1930s through the fall of Saddam's regime, Iraq was one of the central propagators of Arab hatred of Israel of both fascist and jihadist pedigrees. Successive Iraqi regimes have used hatred of Israel as a way of solidifying and justifying their tyranny. And now, for the first time, Israel isn't an issue.
The Iraqis are concerned about their future. Whether US forces remain in place for years to come under a President John McCain or they are summarily withdrawn by a President Barack Obama, the Iraqis know that one day they will be on their own. And they will need allies. They cannot trust their Arab neighbors, which treat the Shi'ite majority country now governing democratically with hostility and suspicion. Obviously Iran and Syria aren't good options. They will both be quick to pounce on a post-US withdrawal Iraq.
And then there is Israel.
THERE IS no reason to doubt that Israel has a potential strategic ally in Iraq today. Indeed, Iraq could become the next decade's version of Turkey in the 1990s or Iran in the 1960s and 1970s. Both in their day were Israel's primary regional ally.
Diplomatic and military discussions may be drawn out and diffic
ult. They may even be exasperating. And depending on developments in Iran in the coming years they may never lead to the signing of a peace treaty on the White House lawn or the exchange of ambassadors. On the other hand, they might.
But what is clear enough is that today Iraq shares vital interests with Israel. It has common enemies. It has common challenges as a democracy. And it doesn't hurt that Palestinians are nearly universally reviled by Iraqis who view them as Saddam Hussein's most stalwart henchmen.
An Israeli-Iraqi alliance would help secure Jordan. It would frighten Syria and perhaps force Damascus to reconsider its alliance with Teheran. It would provide Israel with a new source of natural gas and so end its dependence on fickle Egypt. It would mitigate Israel's political isolation in the region. It would provide Iraq with a safe port in the Mediterranean for its oil exports in the event that the Shaat al-Arab is closed by Iran in a future war. Iraqi Shi'ite leaders could help draw Lebanese Shi'ites away from Iran's Lebanese proxy Hizbullah. Indeed, the potential of an Israeli-Iraqi alliance is seemingly endless.
A basic political fact of life stands at the heart of this theoretical Iraqi-Israeli alliance. Peace is possible for the first time between Israel and Iraq because, for the first time, Iraq perceives its interests as aligned with Israel. That is, peace is possible because at a very basic level, Iraqis today – whether they admit or not – are Israel's friends. And they know it.
And this raises the larger point that should inform the next Israeli government. Specifically, unlike what Israel's Left has been preaching for the past 20 years, peace is made with friends and not with enemies. It is impossible to make peace with enemies because enemies perceive their interests as being in competition with one another. And since peace agreements are nothing more than codifications of the modalities for acting on perceived shared interests, no peace treaty with an enemy is worth the paper it's written on.
It is hard today to find an Iraqi leader who overtly states his desire for peace with Israel. Mithal Alousi is the one heroic exception. But that is not important. By signing a peace treaty with the US and confronting Iran head-on, the Iraqis are making it abundantly clear where they believe their interests lie.
By way of comparison, of course, there are Iran's Palestinian and Syrian allies and proxies who claim that they are desirous of peace with Israel at the same time as their actions – and indeed their other statements – make clear that they perceive their interests as antithetical to Israel's. As a result, no matter how hard Israel tries, it will be unable to make peace with them – unless the Palestinian and Syrian perception of their interests changes.
There is little doubt that the Olmert-Livni-Barak-Yishai government – which has ignored Iraq throughout its tenure as it has capitulated to Iranian proxy after Iranian proxy – will fail to recognize this opportunity. But the next government's strategies should be informed by the call: Give peace with friends a chance!
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.