After months of intense negotiations, heavily hindered by Tehran, the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) which would define the presence of American forces in Iraq after their UN mandate expires on December 31, was signed by the United States and Iraqi governments. Upholding this pact and safeguarding those in the Iraqi government who are distancing themselves from Tehran’s influence will be among the imperatives of the incoming U.S. administration.
To be sure, the ayatollahs’ regime made the most of its network within Iraq’s political and security agencies to exact concessions. Still, the agreement marked the end of months of paralysis, and that runs counter to Tehran’s strategic objectives of prolonged instability and insecurity in Iraq.
One senior U.S. official in Baghdad told Agence France Presse, “Iran strategically wants to be the dominant actor in this country in every sphere, economics, political, security. They have pulled out every stop to block this agreement.” In the midst of the sectarian bloodshed of September 2007, the ayatollahs’ president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, declared “the collapse of the occupiers of Iraq” was imminent. He ominously vowed that his regime “would be prepared to fill this power vacuum.”
While the jury is still out on Tehran’s official position, there are signs that the hard-line establishment is having hard time hiding its dismay. The former Revolutionary Guards commander and current Parliament speaker called on Iraq’s parliament to reject the agreement which, he said, strengthens “US hegemony in Iraq.”
The state-run dailies Kayhan and Jomhouri Islami, both intimately affiliated with the regime’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called the agreement a “capitulation.” Jomhouri Islami wrote, “The agreement provides for all the Americans’ exploitative intentions.” Kayhan asserted that SOFA “is without any doubt America’s new strategy to continue its occupation.”
Provincial elections are planned for next January in Iraq. Independent politicians running against the influence of Tehran’s Iraqi proxies are sure to be targeted. The ayatollahs’ will not hesitate to use their terror network to assassinate and intimidate. To defuse this nefarious campaign, Washington needs to isolate Tehran’s network in Iraq especially within the government agencies and cultivate independent, non-sectarian Iraqis.
In the meantime, security forces must also confront Iran’s terrorist network which, as many senior US military commanders in Iraq have stressed, is the number one strategic threat to Iraq’s security and stability. Success on this front will go a long way to empower Iraq’s independents and reduce pressure on the nascent government.
Tehran meanwhile has been pressuring the Iraqi government for an end to US protection for members of the main opposition People’s Mojahedin of Iran (PMOI/MEK) in Camp Ashraf in Iraq. The United States has confirmed that it is negotiating a handover. The announcement prompted families and friends of Ashraf residents to take their case to the United Nations Secretary General and human rights organizations in September, to prevent a “humanitarian disaster in the making.” According to Reuters, “a group of Iranian exiles has demonstrated for weeks outside the United Nations building in New York to highlight the plight of the people at Camp Ashraf.”
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expressed concern to the Iraqi government about “forcible deportation, expulsion, or repatriation in violation of the non-refoulement principle,” after which, according to Associated Press, the “Iranian demonstrators ended a 65-day vigil outside U.N. headquarters Monday [17 November] and headed to Washington to seek assurances the United States will continue protecting” the unarmed Iranian dissidents in Camp Ashraf. The Fourth Geneva Convention requires the U.S. to provide protection as long as American forces are in Iraq.
Against this background, the U.S. administration must commit to the protection of Camp Ashraf, thus warding off a potential humanitarian disaster against the lives of nearly 3,500 Iranian dissidents. Only this approach accords with International Humanitarian Law, and equally important, sends the right signal to non-sectarian, independent Iraqis that Washington is not going to kowtow to Tehran’s demands in Iraq. Washington and Tehran have absolutely zero strategic goals in common in Iraq.