The U.S. Department of Defense Monday denied weekend reports that Washington and Baghdad had been unable to reach an agreement to allow a significant residual American military force to remain in Iraq beyond the end-of-the-year deadline for U.S. withdrawal. Rejecting reports of a breakdown in negotiations, Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters that the talks are ongoing and no final decisions have been made. The original AP report on Saturday quoted an unnamed senior official in U.S. President Barack Obama's administration as saying that all American troops will leave Iraq, with the exception of roughly 160 active-duty soldiers attached to the U.S. Embassy.
STRATFOR has long talked about how the United States must maintain some 20,000 troops in Iraq. These would serve as a blocking force designed to prevent Iran from exploiting the vacuum that a complete American withdrawal from the country would create. Tehran, through its allies in the Iraqi government, has prevented Washington from renegotiating the status-of-forces agreement. With less than three months remaining before the Dec. 31 deadline for withdrawal, it appears unlikely that the Obama administration will be able to clinch a deal with the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that will keep U.S. troops in Iraq.
Any agreement between Baghdad and Washington will have to stem from a behind-the-scenes understanding between the United States and Iran, and since the Iranians have the upper hand, Tehran has minimal incentive to negotiate with Washington. Even if the Islamic republic agreed to allow a certain number of U.S. troops to remain in Iraq, it would demand a price too high for the United States to accept. At a bare minimum, Iran would demand the lifting of some sanctions.
In other words, Washington has been operating from a position of relative weakness. In this context, the discovery of an alleged plot by the overseas arm of Irans elite military force to assassinate, on American soil, Saudi Arabias ambassador to the United States, has provided the Obama administration with a potential tool to increase pressure on Iran. While serious doubts have been raised, even within the United States, about the plot's veracity, the U.S. government has decided to make use of the allegations to apply significant pressure to the Iranian regime.
The plot's unveiling allows the Americans to try and shake Iranian confidence and to attempt to persuade the Saudis - and others in the region and around the world - to agree to tougher moves against Tehran. Thus far, the United States has not been able to come up with a sanctions regime capable of causing an Iranian capitulation. With greater international consensus for tougher action, Washington could negotiate with Tehran from a position of relative strength. So far, however, the allegations regarding the plot dont seem overwhelmingly convincing - certainly not to the point of persuading the international community to isolate the Islamic republic.
That could change if the Obama administration unveils additional evidence capable of diminishing the degree of skepticism over the plot - and the United States probably would not be pursuing the matter if Washington did not believe it could build a convincing case. Given the short window of opportunity in Iraq, the next few weeks will be critical to U.S. efforts to pressure Iran.