The ISG Report: Still A Mystery

Yesterday, Paul and I both commented on the Executive Summary of the Iraq Study Group’s report. Since then, I’ve been working my way through the full report, focusing mainly on one of the ISG’s key recommendations, that we engage diplomatically with Iran and Syria to get them to stop destabilizing Iraq, and instead, contribute to our success there. The obvious question is, how, exactly, the ISG thinks we will persuade Iran and Syria that it is in their interests to reverse their current policies.
The full report, unfortunately, sheds little light on this fundamental question. The ISG baldly asserts that the states that border Iraq share an interest in that country’s stability:

Despite the well-known differences between many of these countries, they all share an interest in avoiding the horrific consequences that would flow from a chaotic Iraq, particularly a humanitarian catastrophe and regional destabilization.

The idea that Iran and Syria care about a “humanitarian catastrophe,” when their policies to date have been designed to produce just such a catastrophe, is risible. And the ISG admits that, notwithstanding its assurance that our interests really are aligned with Iran’s and Syria’s, those countries don’t see it that way:

Some states have been actively undermining stability in Iraq.

That’s right. As we said yesterday, they are doing so because they think it is in their interest to promote violence and instability in Iraq. So: once again, the question is, how exactly are we going to get Iran and Syria to reverse this perception of their geopolitical interests?
The ISG offers several possible answers, none very persuasive. Attempt number one:

Saudi Arabia’s agreement not to intervene with assistance to Sunni Arab Iraqis could be an essential quid pro quo for similar forbearance on the part of other neighbors, especially Iran.

So far, Saudi Arabia, like Turkey, has stayed out of the Iraq conflict. It hasn’t armed Sunni groups, and I’ve never heard any suggestion that it has even contemplated doing so. The reason seems pretty clear: Saudi Arabia really does have an interest in a peaceful Iraq. The House of Saud, unlike the Iranian Mullahs, wants to pump its oil and be left in peace. Unrest in the region tends to threaten its hold on power. So why would Iran agree to stop fomenting violence in exchange for the Saudis’ promise not to do something which they already aren’t doing, and probably won’t do in any event?
Besides, would the Iranians really care much if the Saudis did begin arming Sunni militias? No doubt Iran would like to see the Shia dominate Iraq, but more fundamentally, Iran’s leaders want Iraq to be weak. The Shia don’t have to win their conflict with the Sunnis for Iran to achieve its goal: with Iraq divided and weak, Iran is the region’s dominant power.
The ISG next talks about incentives and disincentives the U.S. itself can bring to bear:

The United States has diplomatic, economic, and military disincentives available in approaches to both Iran and Syria.

Yes, like stop sending arms into Iraq and training militias, or we’ll blow up your oil production facilities. But that’s not what the ISG has in mind; the report contains not a single further mention of “disincentives.” Instead, it focuses on the “carrots” we can offer Iran and Syria. The first is:

An Iraq that does not disintegrate and destabilize its neighbors in the region.

But neither Iran nor Syria is now deterred by that possibility. Basically, this just means the ISG hopes they will change their minds about where their interests lie.
Further carrots include “accession to international organizations, including the World Trade Organization;” “Prospects for enhanced diplomatic relations with the United States;” and “The prospect of a U.S. policy that emphasizes political and economic reforms instead of (as Iran now perceives it) advocating regime change.”
This is awfully thin stuff. What reason is there to believe that Iran wants better relations with the United States? Doesn’t Iran base its claim to leadership of the Islamic world on the fact that it is taking on, and defeating, the Great Satan? If Iran wanted better relations with the U.S., would it be training and arming Shia militias to kill American soldiers? The ISG seems to entertain the naive view that Iran is like a schoolyard bully who will play nicely if only the other kids will let him participate in their games.
One more thing: does the ISG’s suggestion that we should pursue “political and economic reforms” in Iran, rather than regime change, make any sense? Is there some reason to think the Mullahs want “political and economic reforms”? Does “political reform” mean the institution of real democracy in Iran? If not, what does it mean? If so, won’t Iran’s rulers see it as synonymous with regime change?
The ISG admits that its proposals may not get far with Iran:

Our limited contacts with Iran’s government [!] lead us to believe that its leaders are likely to say they will not participate in diplomatic efforts to support stability in Iraq.

They will say it, but the ISG hopes they won’t really mean it:

Nevertheless, as one of Iraq’s neighbors Iran should be asked to assume its responsibility to participate in the Support Group. An Iranian refusal to do so would demonstrate to Iraq and the rest of the world Iran’s rejectionist attitude and approach, which could lead to its isolation. Further, Iran’s refusal to cooperate on this matter would diminish its prospects of engaging with the United States in the broader dialogue it seeks.

So that’s it. If Iran continues to pursue what it regards as its interests by arming and training Shia militias in Iraq, the world–or, rather, the non-Islamic world–will say, “Naughty Iran.”
And this is a strategy put together by people who call themselves “realists”!
The rest of the ISG’s discussion of “incentives” deals with Syria and relates to the Arab-Israeli conflict. I’ll leave that part for another day; suffice it to say that there isn’t much realism in evidence there, either.
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