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Iran Watches As Iraq Negotiates Security Pact With U.S.

Iranian President Ahmadinejad appears unimpressed by U.S. concessions -- or Shi'ite support.
Iranian President Ahmadinejad appears unimpressed by U.S. concessions -- or Shi'ite support.
Iraq's parliament is nearing a vote on a long-awaited security agreement with the United States. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's cabinet backed the agreement on November 16 and lawmakers are expected to vote on it by November 26. The pact provides a legal basis for U.S. forces in Iraq after the current UN mandate on the international presence there expires on December 31; it sets a deadline for a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraqi cities by July 2009 and from the entire country by the end of 2011.

While Iraqi politicians wrangle over the agreement, the leaders of neighboring Iran have appeared equally confused over how to react to the deal. Last month, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad said the ultimate goal of the pact is to enable Washington to "enslave and exploit" Iraq. Also last month, Iranian parliament speaker Ali Larijani said the pact runs "against Iraq's national-security interests." And Masud Jaza'eri, deputy chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces, said "accepting this pact would be a shame for the Iraqi nation.

This condemnation is somewhat surprising considering the position that Ahmadinejad held as the pact was being negotiated. In June, he criticized a draft of the agreement because it failed to provide a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces. At the time, the Bush administration was concerned that a timetable might prompt a renewal of the insurgency in Iraq and leave the country vulnerable to stepped-up religious and ethnic violence.

Over the last few months, the security situation on the ground moved toward stabilization. The United States and Iraq were locked in exhausting and sometimes frustrating negotiations, during which Washington made some significant concessions -- including setting a timetable for a total withdrawal of U.S. forces and accepting new restrictions on U.S. forces can operate in the country before the 2011 pullout.

In addition, after the pact was finalized, al-Maliki sought and received the support of Iraq's most influential Shi'ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Al-Sistani said he would not object to the pact if the Iraqi cabinet and parliament approved it.

This process and the results it produced pleased some in Iran. Mahmud Hashemi Shahrudi -- head of the Justice Ministry and the former head, during the Saddam Hussein years, of the Iraqi opposition group the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which was then based in Iran -- said that al-Maliki's government "acted very wisely" in its handling of the deal. Although Shahrudi is by no means a "reformist," his experience with Iraqi politics gives him a broader sense of that country's interests, as well as Iran's.

It remains unclear whether Ahmadinejad and Larijani have been impressed. High-ranking Iranian officials have held their tongues since al-Sistani and the Iraqi cabinet approved the agreement. On November 19, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hassan Qashqavi vowed that Tehran "will announce its stance on the Iraq-U.S. security pact after it is officially ratified by the Iraqi parliament."

Although officials have not commented directly, Iran's pro-government media have focused on statements and activities of radical Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Shi'ite supporters, who have led opposition to the pact. The same media have not reported on al-Sistani's approval of the agreement, the fact that Iraq's cabinet voted 27-1 to endorse it, or that al-Sadr's supporters hold only 30 of 572 seats in the Iraqi legislature. They have not noted al-Maliki's largely successful efforts to build broad support for the pact among Shi'a, Kurds, and most Sunnis in government and parliament.

Ultimately, Iran's radical leaders will have to accept the verdict of the Iraqi parliament. It is a legitimate body, elected in as democratic and representative a way as possible, given the circumstances in the country, and representing most ethnic and religious groups in the country. The Iraqi cabinet is its legitimate executive arm. In fact, in terms of democracy and representation, it has greater legitimacy than any legislature in the Arab world and greater legitimacy than Iran's own. Iran's leaders understand the dangers of raising their voices against the will of the Iraqi people. Like it or not, they will have to come to terms with Iraq's decision on this matter.

Abbas Djavadi is associate director of broadcasting for RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL