The Cable

Iraqi Ambassador: Give Us Bigger Guns, And Then We'll Help on Syria

For months, the Obama administration has tried and failed to persuade Iraq to block flights over its territory from Iran to Syria -- a corridor the U.S. believes is sustaining Syria's military advantage over the rebels. Though U.S. officials insist Iranian flyovers present a critical lifeline for the Assad regime, Iraqi officials say they can't stop Iran's military airlift: Iraqi air defenses are too weak. Now, Iraq's newly-minted ambassador to the U.S. has a plan to bridge the diplomatic impasse: Help me help you.

In an interview on Wednesday, Ambassador Lukman Faily said he's busy trying to convince U.S. officials that if they agree to bolster Iraqi air defenses, it will improve Iraq's ability to halt weapons coming from Iran. "We don't have full control of our airspace because we don't have an Integrated Air Defense System in place and this is why I'm talking with Capitol Hill, I'm talking with the State Department and the [Pentagon] because we already have a request for an Integrated Air Defense System plus Apache helicopters which total $10 billion," he told The Cable. "It's beneficial for the United States."

Relations between Iran and Iraq, two Shiite-dominated neighbor-states, have grown in recent years to the concern of some U.S. policymakers. Despite injections of billions of U.S. dollars into the Iraqi government every year, the ethnic, economic and regional ties between Iran and Iraq have made Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki an unpredictable ally. And in the case of Syria, even the best efforts of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry have failed to produce results. "I made it very clear to the prime minister that the overflights from Iran are in fact helping to sustain President Assad and his regime," said Kerry, speaking of his March negotiations with Maliki.

But while it's no surprise why Iraqi officials would want such a deal, U.S. military experts concede that Faily has a legitimate point: Even if Iraq wanted to stop Tehran's arms shipments, it couldn't. 

The Iraqi Air Force consists of some reconnaissance and light transport aircraft, but it doesn't have what's known as fixed wing Defensive Counter Air capability. At the moment, there's an agreement in place for the U.S. to provide Iraq with F-16s, but they haven't been delivered.

"The Iraqi position that they have no Integrated Air Defense System, no fixed wing fighter aircraft and no attack helicopter aircraft to intercept Iranian aircraft transiting Iraqi airspace is technically valid," Chris Harmer, a senior naval analyst with the Institute for the Study of War, tells The Cable. "All Iraq really has at this point is basic civilian grade Air Traffic Control radars. They can see Iranian planes transiting their airspace, but they don't have the military capability to force Iranian planes to land and submit to inspections."

Faily is eager to begin articulating his plan to U.S. officials. On Thursday, the energetic diplomat will present his credentials to President Barack Obama, which, as he noted, will then give him clearance to meet with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.

"I can't see any benefit for the United States not to proceed with this," he said.

On the U.S. side, however, questions remain about how Iraq would use its newly-found airpower should the U.S. agree to such a deal.

"The Iraqi government is in a difficult situation here: they want, and need, to maintain good relations with both Washington and Tehran," said Stephen Wicken, a colleague of Harmer's and a research analyst at the Institute. "Iraq can't afford to engage in confrontation with Iran, so even with the ability to police Iraqi airspace, I would expect the two to reach a workable understanding that would allow Iran to keep resupplying Assad without making Iraqi collaboration even more visible."

Of course, that's just an educated hunch. But there is another consideration to keep in mind outside the front-burner issue of the Syrian civil war: the Kurds. For years, Masoud Barzani, president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, has used F-16s as a talking point. "Barzani has said repeatedly that they fear that Maliki would use a new and improved air force against them."

All these factors have loomed heavily over the U.S. decision to drag out the delivery of F-16s to Iraq, creating a number of interesting dynamics. "The wait for the F-16s -- which I expect will appear eventually -- actually helps the Iraqi government," Wicken said. "They can plausibly deny that they are sanctioning the Iranian overflights and blame the U.S,. preserving a sort of uneasy neutrality."

But Faily insists the Iraqi government is playing it straight and is cooperating with the Obama administration in any way it can. "We've demanded the Iranians not use us as a corridor. We don't want Iraq to be a corridor for weapons to Syria," said Faily. "But we don't have the capability to stop it."

The Cable

Will The ‘Benghazi Scapegoat' Ever Testify?

In an unexpected turn of events, Raymond Maxwell -- a.k.a. the "Benghazi Scapegoat," a.k.a. the only official at a critical State Department bureau to lose his job after the Sept. 11 attack -- will not testify this week before the House Foreign Affairs Committee as scheduled. Earlier in the week, sources told The Cable that Maxwell was getting cold feet. Meanwhile his association and Republican staffers on the committee refused to confirm his attendance.

Now, Rep. Ed Royce, chairman of the committee, says the hearing has been postponed. "Thursday's hearing is postponed. Mr. Raymond Maxwell and others will testify before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in September," said the congressman. "The Committee will continue its work reforming the Accountability Review Board process that investigated the facts surrounding the terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya."

Maxwell, the former deputy assistant secretary for Maghreb affairs, was placed on administrative leave following the attack that killed four Americans including Ambassador Chris Stevens. He insists he had no role in denying embassy requests for back up and has described the department's investigation into whether he should be fired as a "lynching."

"I had no involvement to any degree with decisions on security and the funding of security at our diplomatic mission in Benghazi," he told The Daily Beast in May.

A source says Maxwell may have gotten cold feet given that he was the only State Department employee willing to testify this week. It's possible that a postponed meeting will give the committee more time to include other State Department officials in the hearing, but it's too soon to say. 

Maxwell's claim of institutional betrayal has made him a hot commodity among House lawmakers. Besides his scheduled testimony with HFAC, the House Oversight Committee led by California Republican Darrell Issa has also expressed interest in hearing from Maxwell. The thrust of the Maxwell narrative is that senior State Department officials were given a pass while Maxwell, who claims he had nothing to do with security failures, took the blame.

That's precisely the point lawmakers such as Issa have spent months trying to prove -- an effort that has resulted in a slew of subpoenas for officials and documents from top aides to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. While Clinton has been viewed as a target of House lawmakers, others have come under scrutiny: Beth Jones, then-acting assistant secretary of Near Eastern Affairs, and Cheryl Mills, Clinton's then-chief of staff, to name two.

According to Maxwell's statements to The Daily Beast, Jones told him, "Cheryl Mills directed me to remove you immediately from the [deputy assistant secretary] position." The Beast article suggested that Maxwell's punishment contradicted the ARB report, given that the ARB co-chair Thomas Pickering claimed the "assistant-secretary level ... is in our view the appropriate place to look, where the decision making in fact takes place, where, if you like, the rubber hits the road."