Use al-Maliki visit to send Iran a clear message

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Nov. 1 visit to Washington will say as much about the United States’ Iran policy as it does about future relations with Baghdad.

Analysts will be watching closely to see if President Obama leverages his influence over the leader that many are calling a puppet of the Iranian regime.

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Al-Maliki’s visit comes on the heels of the administration’s repeated olive branches to newly elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Obama’s naive attempts to re-establish relations with the authoritarian regime’s so-called “moderate” envoy.

Rouhani, fresh off a PR offensive designed to shake the sanctions crippling his economy, has been emboldened in recent months.

First his American counterpart failed to push back on Syrian President Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons, a measure that would have disrupted the sacrosanct union between Tehran and Damascus and posed a challenge to Tehran’s growing regional influence.

Then the Iranian regime praised an Iraqi massacre designed to break the back of Tehran’s most worrisome and best-organized political opposition, the People’s Mujahedin of Iran. The Sept. 1 hit featured more than 100 heavily armed commandos storming a refugee compound in northeast Iraq called Camp Ashraf and murdering 52 of the 100 residents living there, taking another seven hostage.

The failure of last week’s P5+1 talks in Geneva to secure even a single meaningful concession on the nuclear issue was further cause for celebration.

The White House has framed the Iraqi leader’s visit as an opportunity to “highlight the importance of the U.S.-Iraq relationship” and “enhance cooperation,” including coordination on a range of regional issues.

But the meeting poses a dilemma for the Obama White House: Embrace the Iraqi leader and signal the Iranian regime that the U.S. will bless the unholy alliance between Tehran and Baghdad by turning a blind eye to the slaughter of Iranian dissidents; or reject the failed strategy of appeasement and engage Tehran, via Baghdad, from a position of strength.

The choice is an obvious one. But the administration’s failure to recognize Tehran’s cyclical use of threat and accommodation in the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction has ceded valuable time and weakened the U.S. negotiating posture.

Al-Maliki’s visit is an opportunity to reset Iran policy through enhanced pressure on the Iraqi government.

Here’s what the White House can do to strengthen its hand in forthcoming discussions:

1. Hold Iraq accountable for its failure to protect the 52 defenseless individuals murdered at Camp Ashraf on Sept. 1. The massacre was a clear violation of the quadripartite agreement signed by the Iraqi government and ratified by the U.S. and the United Nations on Aug. 17, 2012. The shameful failure to honor repeated commitments to protect the dissidents only invites further violence. Maliki should be put on notice that any future acts of violence against the dissidents will trigger an immediate suspension of military and financial assistance to Iraq.

2. Pressure the Iraqi government to promptly release the seven hostages, including six women, held under threat of extradition to Iran. Such a transfer is certain to result in torture and death. Secretary of State John Kerry denounced previous assaults on the dissidents by naming them “vicious and senseless terrorist attacks” and calling for the perpetrators to be brought to justice. Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman too is responsible for issuing empty rhetoric and false concern at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Oct. 3. Obama must now summon the fortitude to live up to his administration’s pledges. Leveraging U.S. influence to ensure the safe return of the seven individuals kidnapped by the Iraqi government is imperative to the success of future talks with the Iranian regime.

3. Utilize the televised component of the public meeting with the Iraqi leader to send a message to Tehran by announcing that the U.S. will formally designate the dissidents detained in Iraq as political refugees and resettle them in the U.S. without precondition. Tehran fears internal threats more than external ones and the move would do more to strengthen the U.S. hand in future negotiations than anything else. It would also take the opposition off the bargaining table.

Negotiations with Tehran to date have been an exercise in capitulation. Tehran will be monitoring the Obama-Maliki summit for signs of a shift in Iran policy marked by demonstrated concern for the primary opposition to clerical rule. If no changes are noted, the regime will march on to nuclear status.

Sheehan is director of the graduate programs in Negotiation and Conflict Management and Global Affairs and Human Security in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Baltimore. The opinions expressed are his own.

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