Will Iraq Break a U.N. Arms Embargo On Iran?

Earlier this week, Reuters broke the story that Iraq had signed a deal to purchase $125 million worth of arms and ammunition from its eastern neighbor and former bitter enemy, the Islamic Republic of Iran. If carried through, the deal would violate a UN arms embargo on Iran, in place since March 2007. It’s the latest evidence of the new relationship that has steadily developed between two countries that fought a hugely destructive war between 1980 and 1988.

Responding to the report, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki warned that “any transfer of arms from Iran to a third country is in direct violation” of UN Security Council resolutions, and said the U.S. was “seeking clarification on this matter from the government of Iraq and to ensure that Iraqi officials understand the limits that international law places on arms trade with Iran.” The Iraq defense ministry issued a statement that a deal had not been finalized. 

The fact that Iraq’s government is close to Iran’s is not news at this point. This began to be evident from almost the moment that the new Shia-dominated government was created in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion and occupation that ended decades of Sunni minority rule. What I did find notable, however, was the justification for the deal offered by Iraqi government.

“We are launching a war against terrorism and we want to win this war,” government spokesman Ali Mussawi said. “Nothing prevents us from buying arms and ammunition from any party and it’s only ammunition helping us to fight terrorists.”

So: The United States uses its war on terrorism to justify invading Iraq, removing its government and installing a new one. That new government then uses its war on terrorism to justify breaking an arms embargo against neighboring Iran, who, according to the people who brought us the Iraq war, is America’s current Greatest Enemy of All Time.

The Iraq war’s proponents responded to this latest news by immediately recognizing the folly of invading and replacing Iraq’s anti-Iran Sunni regime with a new one largely made up of Iran’s Shia clients and partners.

Just kidding.

“This is a result of our departure from Iraq,” said Senator John McCain on Tuesday.

This is, of course, the same refrain that President Obama’s critics have been rehearsing since the moment he announced his intention to follow through on his promise to withdraw from Iraq. As violence there has spiked over the past few months, and Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists have re-emerged in Iraq’s western Sunni heartland, Republicans have insisted that the situation would be better if only U.S. troops had only remained in Iraq, and that not securing Iraqi permission to keep troops stationed there is Obama’s failure.

“A status of forces agreement with Iraq should have been agreed to, and this administration failed to deliver,” House Speaker John Boehner said in early January. McCain insisted that Iraqi leaders were “ready to sign” a new status of forces agreement, but “Obama did not want to stay in Iraq, and that's what it was all about.”

“If we'd had a residual force of 10- to 12,000, I am totally convinced there would not have been a rise of al-Qaeda," McCain’s sidekick Lindsey Graham said. “The political process would've continued to move forward.”

While people like McCain and Graham are so bought in, professionally and emotionally, to the idea that the Iraq war was right and just that no amount of evidence will ever penetrate their tightly drawn veil of foregone conclusions, for others it’s worth remembering some key facts. First, the agreement stipulating a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011 was negotiated by the George W. Bush administration. The Obama administration followed it. Indeed, back in 2009 neoconservative columnist Charles Krauthammer praised President Obama for adopting the Bush administration’s timetable, rather than insisting on an immediate pullout. Yet now Obama’s adherence to that same timetable is offered as evidence of failure.

The claim that Obama could've negotiated a continued U.S. presence in Iraq if only he’d really wanted to also contradicts the accounts of those who actually attempted to negotiate a new agreement. “The decision to complete our withdrawal was not the result of a failed negotiation,” wrote Brett McGurk, a Bush administration appointee who served as senior advisor to three U.S. ambassadors in Baghdad, and who helped negotiate the 2008 withdrawal agreement for the Bush administration, “but rather the byproduct of an independent Iraq that has an open political system and a 325-member parliament.” Obama’s critics are right, then, that the pullout of U.S. troops from Iraq was dictated by politics—Iraqi politics, which overwhelmingly favored an American exit.

I saw McCain confronted with this point at the 2011 Halifax Security Forum, and he was strikingly dismissive of the very democratic processes that he had supported forcibly installing. “We’ve got troops in Kuwait, and we didn’t have to pass it through their parliament!” he insisted, implying that President Obama should have worked harder to sidestep Iraq’s political processes in order to keep troops there. (For McCain, there’s apparently no contradiction between supporting Arab democracy, as he claims to, while also criticizing the president for not more effectively circumventing Arab democracy.) 

Second, just as with the new government’s relationship with Iran, inflamed sectarian tensions in Iraq that enabled Al Qaeda to establish a presence there were not the result of the U.S. withdrawal, but rather of the U.S. invasion and occupation in the first place, which replaced decades of Sunni minority rule with a Shia majority government with extremely close and longstanding ties to Iran, and then turned a blind eye to the new Shia government’s abuses.

Third, the idea that “a residual force of 10- to 12,000” troops could effectively prevent a return of violence is questionable at best. Even when the U.S. had some 150,000 troops in Iraq, it could not determine political realities there (or meaningfully hold back the growing relationship with Iran), and managed to bring violence down only temporarily, and at great cost.

The continuing violence in Iraq (which is largely driven by enduring political tensions that call into question the “success of the surge” narrative in which the war’s remaining advocates have found refuge) and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s sectarian authoritarianism, which was already very much apparent when President Bush was still in office, are now being offered as proof of Obama’s alleged failure to commit the necessary resources to the building of Iraqi democracy. In reality, they should be taken as yet more evidence of the limits of U.S. military power to create the outcomes we would like to see. While the new Iraq has certainly not become the outpost of U.S. power that supporters of the invasion (always unrealistically) envisioned, the U.S. does have an interest in a stable Iraq, and should remain engaged with partners there. But it’s important to keep the record straight on where the responsibility for the current situation really belongs, even if those responsible remain defiantly unwilling to accept it.

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