Fareed Zakaria: Iraq Withdrawal Is Victory For Iran
As the media did a victory lap over Friday's announcement by President Obama that all American troops would be removed from Iraq by the end of the year, Fareed Zakaria took a surprisingly contrary position.
Speaking from Tehran with a variety of CNN hosts throughout the day, Zakaria said this development was a disappointment for the United States and a victory for Iran (video follows with transcript and commentary):
JOHN KING, HOST: A simple question up front. U.S. troops leaving Iraq by the end of the year, Iran has to view this as a victory.
FAREED ZAKARIA: Oh, I'm sure it views it as a victory. Iran views what had happened in Iraq entirely from a kind of geopolitical prism. That is the U.S. and Iran are competing for influence in Iraq. They have viewed it that way from the start of the fall of the regime and they have their agents in there and Iran has long ties to many of threat groups that are now dominant in Iraq.
Prime Minister Maliki and his party were in exile in Iran for 10 years. Many of the Kurdish leaders, including the current president of Iraq, was in Iran. Many of them speak fluent Persian. They have long and ongoing ties. Muqtada al-Sadr, when he finds that things get difficult for him in Iraq he head backs to Iran. So all of these political officials have been nourished sustained by Iran. And as American troops draw down, Iran's influence can only increase.
KING: And this sounds incredibly crass, but is this a fair bottom line? That after almost nine years, billions of dollars in U.S. money and nearly 4,500 lives lost of brave U.S. service men and women, that Iran wins?
ZAKARIA: One of the things I have always - looked on the idea of dealing with Saddam Hussein favorably is that whatever benefits we have gotten out of the operation in Iraq, the costs have been staggering, as you described.
And those costs really seem to far outweigh benefits right now.
KING: At the White House today the deputy national security adviser, Denis McDonough, said they're not that worried about Iran's influence. He says Iran is further isolated, has been weakened in recent years.
ZAKARIA: Denis McDonough pointed out that Iran's been having a bad few months and I think that's entirely true.
The Iranians have had trouble internally, they have had trouble abroad. The whole image of Iran in the wake of the Arab spring has been tarnished. And now these new allegations about the Saudi assassination plot. Iran's not in great shape. But on this specific issue I'm not sure I would agree. I think that Iran has maintained contacts with Iraq very successfully and very aggressively. Look, this is why the Americans couldn't get a deal done.
Later on Friday, Zakaria elaborated on this with Wolf Blitzer on "The Situation Room":
ZAKARIA: It is important to point out this is the disappointment for the United States. The United States was in active negotiations with the Iraqi government to try to retain a residual force. The Central Command of the United States wanted a force much larger than 2,000 or 3,000. The debate that was taking place in the American Administration was whether to have 15,000 troops. Clearly, what happened was on the Iraqi side, they were simply not able to muster the political coalition to make the deal work. And that tells you that there were strong enough forces on - let us for simplicity sake call it the "pro-Iranian side" of the Iraqi political spectrum, the Muqtada al Sadr's of the world and others - that made it very difficult for this to move forward.
So here we are in a situation where we will lose, without any question, day-to-day influence in Iraq and the Iranians will gain it. I think that it does fulfill a promise that President Obama had made, but there was a very easy path to maintain some kind of force level if this status of forces agreement had been negotiated. Clearly what happened was the Iraqis were unwilling to make that deal happen and so the president decided in that context he was going to make clear that there was no circumstance in which American troops were going to stay in Iraq without the legal status of forces agreement that we have with any country in which we have troops stationed.
As such, no matter how the bulk of our media applauded Friday's announcement, it is indeed a disappointment for the United States and a clear victory for Iran.
Not what you'd expect to hear from a man who admitted in May he advises the president on foreign policy.