The Cable

U.S. struggles with Iran for influence in Iraq

The first major test of U.S. post-war influence in Iraq is now raging over efforts to stop Iran from funneling arms to Syria through Iraqi airspace, but the Iraqis are either unwilling or unable to assure the United States the shipments will cease.

Last week, the Washington Times reported that the Iraqi government was refusing to halt Iranian cargo flights to Syria that fly over Iraqi airspace, despite the fact that U.S. officials believe the flights carry massive and illegal shipments of arms to aid President Bashar al-Assad's regime, which is murdering civilians by the thousands in its struggle to keep power. Publicly, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has stated the shipments contain "humanitarian goods, not weapons." However, U.S. officials aren't buying that excuse, and have been repeatedly pressing Maliki behind the scenes to make Iran halt the arms shipments, with limited if any success.

One U.S. official told The Cable that there have been 10 to 20 flights from Iran to Syria with suspected illicit weapons stores on board. Another U.S. official said the resupplies take place via the use of Syrian Air Ilyushin 76 strategic airlifters, similar in size to the Boeing C-17, and that U.S. intelligence reports suspect that the planes are carrying mortar rounds, small arms, ammunition, rockets, and light anti-aircraft guns, which can also be used to fire on people.

Iran's interest in bolstering the Assad regime -- its most important ally in the Arab world -- is clear. CENTCOM commander Gen. James Mattis told Congress earlier this month that the downfall of the Assad regime would be "the biggest strategic setback for Iran in 25 years."

The main U.S. officials involved in the effort to press Iraq on the flights include Vice President Joseph Biden and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Jim Jeffries, who is expected to step down in the coming weeks and be replaced by Brett McGurk, a lawyer who served on President George W. Bush's National Security Staff and as President Barack Obama's special advisor. Jeffries has met with Maliki several times over the past few weeks on the issue, with the latest meeting occurring this week, two U.S. officials confirmed to The Cable.

Biden personally raised the issue with Maliki in a March 12 phone call, two officials confirmed. Biden told Maliki to make the Iranian over flights a "high priority," and Maliki gave Biden an explicit assurance that he would raise the issue with the Iranians. Three days later, Maliki's office issued a public statement denying that Iran was using Iraqi airspace to transfer weapons to Syria.

At a March 21 meeting of the U.N. committee that monitors enforcement of sanctions against Iran, the U.S. representative condemned Iran's ongoing policy of shipping arms to Syria, although she did not mention the Iraqi role.

"We are alarmed that a majority of the violations reported to the committee involved illicit transfers of arms and related material from Iran to Syria, where the Assad regime is using them to violently repress the Syrian people," said deputy U.S. ambassador Rosemary DiCarlo.

Despite Maliki's unconstructive public statements, one U.S. official involved in the issue told The Cable that the flights seem to have stopped over the last few days.

"The Iraqis have raised this repeatedly and in all kinds of ways with the Iranians and, we believe, with the Syrians. We've seen some changes in over flight patterns," the official said. "There have been cancellations of flights."

The official acknowledged that there was no way to know how long the flights would be stopped, or if they would resume at some later date.  "In the long run, we're all dead," the official said.

This U.S. official argued that the Iraqi government is acting in relatively good faith, and the United States must be sensitive to Maliki's weak position and his need to keep good relations with Iran. Maliki couldn't enforce a ban on Iranian over flights in Iraqi airspace even if he really wanted to, the official said, because Iraq doesn't have an air force and U.S. air assets have all left the country.

"The Iraqi government is trying to cooperate. They have a limited air picture and they have no way to force aircraft down," said the official.

Inside the administration, other officials see the Iraqi government's behavior as distinctly less cooperative, and they believe the Maliki government often tells its U.S. interlocutors exactly what they want to hear -- and then does something completely different.

"On the surface the Maliki government seems to be aligned with us on Syria, but in reality they view a follow-on regime as a serious threat. Maliki's interests are aligned with Iran on this issue," another official said. "This is the opportunity for the Iraqis to push back against Iranian influence and stand with the rest of the region in opposing the killing of innocent civilians, but they're just not doing it."

The Iraqi government has an added incentive to be on its best behavior, as Baghdad is set to host the Arab League summit on March 29. It will be the first such summit in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein, and Maliki is hoping to use the event to symbolize Iraq's return to stability following the U.S. military withdrawal. After the summit, there is less pressure on Maliki to seem sympathetic to the Western and Arab League's position on Syria.

Some inside the administration see Iran's arming of the Syrian regime as particularly troubling, because the Obama administration has decided not to arm the Syrian rebels for now. .

"We've made the decision not to arm the opposition while our adversaries are actively and purposefully rearming the regime and in some cases enhancing the Assad government's ability to crack down on the opposition," the official said. "Would the regime be so cohesive if they weren't being resupplied by the Iranians?"

For some officials and experts, the issue highlights the steep decline of U.S. leverage in Iraq following the military withdrawal.

"This is another sign that the U.S. has lost a tremendous amount of influence inside of Iraq.  We're leaning on Maliki heavily but he's just not cooperating," said Ken Pollack, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center. "Maliki's not looking gratuitously to piss us off, but at the end of the day Iran is wielding a lot more influence in Iraq than we are."

Pollack said that Maliki is walking a tightrope, trying to show the Arabs he will play ball on Syria. Meanwhile, the Iraqi premier knows he can't afford politically to alienate Iran, nor can he throw his lot in with the Sunni Arabs countries, who may never accept him no matter what he does.

"Maliki is not a lover of Iran. He's actually quite suspicious of them and in his way quite an Arab and Iraqi nationalist," said Pollack. "That said, it was the Iranians who ultimately brokered his reelection to the prime ministership, and Maliki understands that Iran wields a lot of influence in Iraq."

Pollak said Maliki probably will continue to make strong statements about the over flights in public and to the Americans, but privately tell Iran they can continue. As long as U.S policy on Syria remains unclear, Pollack argued, the United States can expect nervous partners like Iraq to equivocate.

"The Obama administration hasn't figured out what it wants to do about Syria," he said. "It's hard to make a judgment that we need to invest a whole lot of political capital in getting the Iraqis to turn this off if we don't know what we are doing ourselves."

"To one degree or another, the Iraqis will always support Iran. They are not Israel," one U.S. official said. "What Maliki really believes... nobody knows."

Khalid Mohammed-Pool/Getty Images

The Cable

Clinton waives restrictions on U.S. aid to Egypt

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has decided to use a national security waiver to allow over $1.5 billion of U.S. aid to Egypt, bypassing Congressional restrictions even while the Egyptian government's assault on NGOs in Cairo continues.

The State Department hadn't planned to announce the waiver decision today. "We're still expecting a decision this week, but she hasn't made it yet," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said at Thursday's press briefing. But apparently Clinton had decided, because Senate Appropriations State and Foreign Ops Subcommittee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the author of the restrictions, got a call from the State Department today notifying him of the waiver. In a statement Thursday afternoon, he announced the waiver and criticized Clinton's choice.

"I am disappointed by this decision.  I know Secretary Clinton wants the democratic transition in Egypt to succeed, but by waiving the conditions we send a contradictory message," Leahy said. "The Egyptian military should be defending fundamental freedoms and the rule of law, not harassing and arresting those who are working for democracy. They should end trials of civilians in military courts and fully repeal the Emergency Law, and our policy should not equivocate on these key reforms."

Leahy's office has been urging Clinton not to use the waiver authority that Leahy himself added to the most recent appropriations bill. Now that the waiver has been exercised, Leahy is arguing that, just because the restrictions on the aid have been removed, that doesn't mean the U.S. government necessarily has to deliver the aid -- at least not all of it up front.

"Now that Secretary Clinton has decided to use the law's waiver authority, she should use the flexibility the law provides and release no more taxpayer funds than is demonstrably necessary, withholding the rest in the Treasury pending further progress in the transition to democracy," said Leahy.

We were told by multiple Congressional sources that the State Department is considering delaying part of the $1.3 billion of military aid and most of the $250 million in economic aid, at least for a while. The Pentagon has been urging Clinton to release some of the military aid because existing contracts with U.S. defense firms were dependent on the funds, multiple Congressional aides said.

Leahy's House counterpart, House Appropriations State and Foreign Ops Subcommittee Chairwoman Kay Granger (R-TX), also came out against Clinton's decision to waive the restrictions today and said that she had been told it was in fact a partial waiver.

"I am disappointed by the timing of the Secretary's decision to issue a partial waiver of restrictions on FMF funds for Egypt while the Egyptian government's transition is ongoing," Granger said in a statement to The Cable. "The State Department needs to make the case that waiving the conditions is in the national security interest of the United States. I expect the Secretary to follow the law and consult the Appropriations Committee before any funds are transferred."

Critics of providing further military aid to the Cairo government have raised concerns over the actions of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which allegedly played a role in the December raids on several NGOs in Cairo, including three funded by the United States: the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, and Freedom House.

A number of Americans who worked for NGOs in Egypt were temporarily banned from leaving the country and charged with crimes, but they were eventually allowed to depart earlier this month. Prosecutions against both the foreign workers and the local staffs of the NGOs continue.

The non-military aid is under particular scrutiny because it would be given largely to the Egyptian Ministry of International Cooperation, which is run by Fayza Abul Naga, the official who is suspected to have played a lead role in the raids and the prosecutions.

"The decision to waive the conditions, partially or in full, on military aid sends the wrong message to the Egyptian government -- that U.S. taxpayers will subsidize the Egyptian military while it continues to oversee the crackdown on civil society and to commit human rights abuses," said David Kramer, president of Freedom House. "A resumption of military aid at this point also sends the wrong message to the Egyptian people -- that we care only about American NGO workers, not about the aspirations of the Egyptian people to build democracy."

Stephen McInerney, executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy, agreed with that assessment. The announcement of the waiver, he said, was "extremely disappointing, particularly as Egyptian and American organizations working to support Egypt's transition to democracy remain very much under threat."

The restrictions in the bill were conditioned on Clinton certifying that the Egyptian military is making progress on the transition to democracy, and that the Egyptian government is allowing freedom of expression and assembly. McInerney said the United States can still hold Egypt accountable for those promises.

"I very much hope, as Senator Leahy has expressed, that the administration will still elect to delay the disbursement of the majority of the fiscal year 2012 funds to Egypt's military until further progress in Egypt's transition to democratic civilian rule has been achieved," he said.

Not all senior lawmakers and officials connected with the issue are so eager to cut off U.S. funding to the Egyptian government. Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ), the chairman of IRI, has been deeply involved in the issue and traveled to Egypt in the midst of the crisis.

He told The Cable in an interview that the aid served as a valuable form of influence that the United States must use carefully.

"We've got to weigh all the aspects of this issue, it's very complicated and complex. We want to be on the same page as the administration," he said. "In general, I think its two steps forward and one step back in Egypt. But there's also the overall issue of the delicate political situation in Egypt today."

Senate Foreign Relations Middle East Subcommittee Chairman Bob Casey (D-PA) told The Cable that the issue wasn't black and white, and that there should be a way to provide some aid while still keeping the pressure on Egypt to continue reforms.

"We've got to have a measure of accountability. But I think the idea of cutting off aid doesn't make sense," Casey said. "We just have to figure out a better way to make the aid conditional based on those measures of accountability, and I think we can achieve that. I think, in this case, it's a mistake to take an either/or approach."

UPDATE: Read Nuland's full Friday statement on the waivers after the jump:

Today, Secretary Clinton has certified to Congress that Egypt is meeting its obligations under its Peace Treaty with Israel. The Secretary has also waived legislative conditions related to Egypt’s democratic transition, on the basis of America’s national security interests, allowing for the continued flow of Foreign Military Financing to Egypt. These decisions reflect America’s over-arching goal: to maintain our strategic partnership with an Egypt made stronger and more stable by a successful transition to democracy.

Egypt has made significant progress toward democracy in the last 15 months, including: free and fair parliamentary elections and the transfer of legislative authority to the new People’s Assembly, and a date announced for complete transition to civilian leadership. However, Egypt’s transition to democracy is not yet complete, and more work remains to protect universal rights and freedoms. The Egyptian people themselves have made this clear to their own leaders.

The Secretary’s decision to waive is also designed to demonstrate our strong support for Egypt’s enduring role as a security partner and leader in promoting regional stability and peace. Egypt has maintained thirty-plus years of peace with Israel. It contributes to efforts to stop proliferation and arms smuggling and facilitates missions from Afghanistan to counterterrorism in the Horn of Africa.

We are committed to supporting the Egyptian people as they strive for the dignity, opportunity, rights and freedoms for which they have already sacrificed so much. That includes protection for civil society and NGOs, which have a critical role to play in building Egypt’s democracy. We remain deeply concerned regarding the trials of civil society activists—non-Egyptians and Egyptians alike—and have raised these concerns at the highest levels, urging an end to harassment.

The political transition underway is bringing about a new, more democratic Egypt. As this process continues, we look forward to engaging with Egyptians on how we can best support and advance the interests we share. We will, of course, consult closely with the Congress about these issues.

Egyptians are living through one of the most remarkable periods of their thousands of years of history. Today we reaffirm our support for Egypt, for its historic accomplishments to date, for the democratic journey it is on and for our enduring partnership.


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