On RedState, Pejman Yousefzadeh raises a question:
"Well, let us see. If Iran and Syria have an interest in a stable and secure Iraq, one cannot help but wonder why, as the ISG report points out, "Iran backs Shia claims and supports various Shia militias in Iraq, but it also supports other groups in order to enhance its influence and hedge its bets on possible outcomes," and Syria "[facilitates] support for Iraqi insurgent groups" despite being "threatened by the impact that the breakup of Iraq would have on its own multiethnic and multiconfessional-society.""
I've seen this idea a lot, and frankly, I just picked Yousefzadeh's version of it because it was handy. Precisely because I've seen this offered as a reason to dismiss the idea of negotiating with Iran so often, I thought it would be worthwhile to answer it, especially since the answer is pretty obvious.
"Instability in Iraq" is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Unlike being pregnant, it admits of degrees. It is therefore quite possible that Iran and Syria have an interest in producing one level of instability in Iraq, but also have an interest in avoiding a different level of instability. Moreover, since it's hard to calibrate the level of instability one will produce (just ask the Bush administration), it's also quite possible that they might have been trying to produce the level of instability they want, but have ended up producing a lot more. In this case, they would have an interest in lessening the amount of instability even though they helped create instability in the first place.
Specifically: Iran and Syria obviously have an interest in the existence of some instability in Iraq. Both countries have an interest in seeing our army tied down in Iraq, since as long as we're busy there, we're that much less capable of messing with them. Iran, in particular, wants to develop its nuclear program; it therefore has an interest in neutralizing anything that might be used to get it to give that program up, like, say, our army. Why we decided to hand them this source of leverage over us at a time when it was already clear that we needed to find a way to block their nuclear program is a mystery that passeth all understanding, as is our decision to exacerbate the problem by making it quite clear that if we weren't distracted in Iraq, we'd be thinking seriously about invading Syria or Iran. Remember this?
"The neo-conservative ideologues in the in the Bush administration have never made any secret of their desire to see the U.S. military pursue "regime change" in Tehran next. "Real men go to Tehran" was one of their playful slogans during the buildup to Operation Iraqi Freedom. And they took Iran's inclusion in President Bush's rhetorical "Axis of Evil" as a sign that their agenda might prevail. "
If I were in charge of Iran, I'd be trying to keep the US Army bogged down in Iraq too. Wouldn't you? And wouldn't it have been a good idea, back in the day, to keep any thoughts of military intervention in any of Iraq's neighbors to ourselves?
Anyways: the fact that both Syria and Iran have an interest in keeping us tied down in Iraq does not, however, mean that there's some unitary property, "instability", that they want Iraq to have. They have a very strong interest in Iraq not being so stable that we can decide to move on to our next target, namely them. But they also have a very strong interest in Iraq not collapsing altogether. Syria already has problems with Iraqi refugees:
"Refugees pose a tremendous danger to the frail regime of Bashar al-Assad. Already, Syria is dealing with an influx of 450,000 Iraqis, and may bear the brunt of a Sunni exodus from western Iraq. Most Syrians are also Sunni, but the Assad regime is not: it rests on Syria's Shiite Alawite community, which composes about 12 percent of the population. Many Sunnis see the Alawites as heretics, and from 1976 to 1982 Bashar's father, Hafez al-Assad, brutally repressed the insurgent Sunni Muslim Brotherhood. Iraqi Sunni Muslims waging a long conflict from Syrian soil could once again radicalize Syria's own Sunni community. This time it could call on support from outside Syria, and perhaps seek sanctuary in Iraq as well. "
Iran has taken in many fewer refugees, but if Iraq dissolves into complete anarchy, that could change in a heartbeat. And that would definitely not be in Iran's interests. Just think of how we'd feel about the prospect of Canada or Mexico falling apart, and masses of Canadians or Mexicans streaming over the border.
Next question: if Iran and Syria have an interest in avoiding a complete collapse in Iraq, why don't they just stop promoting instability? This is one of those questions to which the answer is obvious once you pose it directly. Not only is instability not an all-or-nothing proposition; it's not an undifferentiated substance that different countries are pouring into Iraq, like sugar into tea. And it's not a solution to the problems of any of Iraq's neighbors to say: stop dumping instability into Iraq! Find somewhere else to put it! Shoot it into outer space, or sequester it underground, but for heavens sake don't put any more of it into Iraq!
This is why Yousefzadeh is wrong to say: "All the Iranians and Syrians would have to do is to reduce their support for the insurgency and allow Iraq to stabilize." Iraq's neighbors are promoting instability by supporting one or another faction within Iraq. The result of any one of them dropping that support, alone, would not be that "instability" would diminish, and that country's problems with "instability" would be solved. The result would be that the people it used to support would be at a massive disadvantage compared to their opponents, which would presumably lead to a greater influx of refugees.
This is a standard collective action problem. There is a type of behavior -- supporting armed factions in Iraq -- that is individually rational for each neighbor, but collectively disastrous for all of them. It is therefore in all of their interests to find some sort of collective solution to this problem, so that rather than one country simply abandoning the groups it sympathizes with to the tender mercies of their opponents, all the neighbors can stop (or at least curtail) their support of all Iraq's armed factions. That truly would be in the interests of Iraq's neighbors. Obviously, it would also be in Iraq's interests, and in ours.
Solving collective action problems typically involves more than just identifying a solution which would work if everyone adopted it. It involves giving all participants the confidence that everyone else will adopt it. One standard way of producing that confidence is by setting up a mechanism that ensures that those who try to gain an advantage over the rest by shirking their part of the bargain will be penalized. Absent that confidence, it might not be rational for any individual to keep her side of the bargain: if other people won't keep theirs, it would be not just pointless, but actually destructive to her interests, to keep it; if others will keep theirs, then why should she bother? Or, in this case: if other countries don't withdraw support for their chosen factions, then a given country will only be setting its allies up for defeat if it withdraws its support from them; but if other countries do withdraw their support, then instability will go down anyways, so why not get the best of both worlds by having reduced instability and victorious allies?
Only if there's some mechanism that transforms the incentives of all concerned, by imposing significant costs to violating the agreement, will others have any reason to believe that their own compliance won't be worse than pointless. In some cases, the "mechanism" could be as simple as: people wanting to be decent people, and not to incur the costs to their own conception of themselves that breaking their word would entail. In the case at hand, however, relying on the honor and decency of Syria and Iran somehow doesn't seem fully adequate to the task. (Just call me cynical.) One thing that might be adequate, however, is a commitment on the part of the United States to impose serious costs on anyone who does not keep their side of the bargain. We have the power to do so; and while we have seriously damaged our ability to serve as an honest broker in situations like this, the tattered remnants of our moral authority might be adequate to this task. In any case, it's hard to see what else would do the trick.
This is the basic, standard argument for diplomacy in situations like this. As I said in my last post, I don't think it will actually work: this administration has neither the skill nor the unity of purpose to carry it off. But saying "gee, if Iran had an interest in stability, why is it promoting instability?" is really not a good argument against it.