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.”