At first glance, the positions of the three major Presidential candidates regarding Iran’s nuclear ambitions do not seem much different. All three express concerns about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and all three seem committed to stopping Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

Taking a second look at the candidates’ positions, however, one finds differences mainly centering on the question of how and when to negotiate with Iran. Senator Obama is willing to negotiate at the highest levels of government without preconditions, Senator Clinton is willing to negotiate at a lower level of government representation, and Senator McCain wants to negotiate from a position of strength.

In reading these positions, one might quickly and superficially conclude that the differences in the candidates’ approaches show Obama as idealistic or naïve, Clinton as realistic or calculating, and McCain as determined or imperialistic. In reality, however, these differences in negotiating styles and approaches have very serious policy implications for the United States. Let me explain.

The road to negotiations with Teheran goes through Baghdad. Developments in Iraq will determine whether, when and how negotiations between the United States and Iran take place. And the first question to ask ourselves is not whether the United States wants or should negotiate with Iran, but rather what does Iran really want in Iraq?

Most analysts have been saying that Iran would like to “quick” the United States out of Iraq. This conviction has blinded us to true Iranian intentions, caused us to badly assess the situation in Iraq and limited our policy options. In reality, Iran is much shrewder than most analysts think and is planning for the long haul. Iran wants to see the United States stay in Iraq as long as possible for the following reasons:

  • The longer the United States remains military engaged in Iraq, the greater the chances are that the Iraqi people will rise against what they will perceive as American occupation. Score one for Iran: let the Iraqis do the fighting.
  • Continued long term US military operations in Iraq will insure a process of bleeding the United States to the point of fatigue and defeatism. Score two for Iran: America should not simply be defeated in Iraq. It should leave fatigued and weakened so Iran could then assert itself as a regional power.
  • The presence of tens of thousands of American troops on Iraqi soil as sitting targets for Iranian proxies is comforting to the Iranian regime because it ties one of America’s hands when the latter explores military options against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Score three for Iran: why let American troops leave Iraq and free America’s hands! The more engaged US troops are in Iraq, the riskier it becomes for the United States to carry out military strikes against Iran. In Iran’s perspective, the 140,000 American troops and the tens of thousands of civilian and security contractors in Iraq are potential targets and/or hostages. Can you imagine, for example, the possible consequences of a nightmarish scenario in which thousands of unarmed Iraqis, instigated by Iranian agents, storm US positions?

In summary, Iran does not seek a quick defeat of the United States in Iraq because this may lead to a quick withdrawal of US forces from Iraq (such as in Lebanon in 1983) and will, therefore, enable the US to recover much more quickly and focus its energies on the Iranian threat.

On the other hand, Iran is terrified by an American victory in Iraq. The Iranian regime feels quite confident that the United States with its current policy is incapable to achieve victory in Iraq. A drastic change in policy reflecting a more determined America to win in Iraq presents a scary scenario for Iran.

In reality, Iran’s strategic objective is to seek a slow process of American defeat in Iraq. The current regime believes that this is the most viable option for Iran to secure a greater role for itself in the region and force American accommodation of its ambitions.

In light of this clearer understanding of Iranian intentions, it seems that McCain’s and Obama’s approaches to Iraq are the ones to cause most concern to the Iranian regime. McCain may pursue a more aggressive military policy in Iraq in order to achieve a decisive victory, thus strengthening America’s hand vis-à-vis Iran. Obama, who opposed the Iraq war from the start, may decide on a quicker withdrawal of US forces, thus freeing America’s currently tied hand in Iraq and strengthening America’s negotiating position vis-à-vis Iran. As for Clinton, her approach to Iraq, which aims at achieving withdrawal of US forces over the longer term and in a “more orderly” fashion, appears at first glance as being more centrist or “middle of the road” in comparison to the positions of the other two candidates. In reality though, her approach to Iraq makes America’s negotiating position vis-à-vis Iran the weakest because it plays exactly into Iranian designs for the region through Iraq.

The road to Teheran goes through Baghdad!