BAGHDAD – U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker on Sunday accused Iran of trying to interfere with a new security pact between Iraq and the United States, saying Americans need to view Iraq with “a sense of strategic patience” because the stakes in the region are so high.
The 37-year diplomat, interviewed at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, is in negotiations with Iraqi officials to define the basis for a continuing American military presence in the country beyond the end of this year.
The talks hit an impasse recently and are taking place against a backdrop of increasing calls in the United States for a withdrawal and declining interest in the war from many members of the American public.
Crocker struck an emotional note in discussing recent accomplishments in Iraq, including a sharp decline in violence across much of the country and preliminary steps toward political reconciliation, such as last week’s agreement to schedule provincial elections by Jan. 31.
“All Americans should be and are proud of the achievements in Iraq and the American role in bringing about the change,” he said. “Iraq is in a far, far better place than it was, say, 18 months ago.”
However, he warned, those gains could be in jeopardy if U.S. interest wanes. “So I think what Americans need going forward is a sense of strategic patience,” he said.
“If we decide we are tired of it, if we decide we don’t want to do it anymore and that it is time to turn our attention to other things, this could all go the other way. And it is certainly my sense, as someone who has served in the Middle East for the better part of three decades, that you would pay a major long-term price.”
He suggested it could be seen as a repeat of the U.S. withdrawal from Lebanon in the early 1980s, a move that led countries like Iran and Syria to draw assumptions about U.S. lack of resolve and embrace an attitude of defiance. “These kinds of actions have profound and very far-reaching consequences,” he said.
Talks on the military pact stalled over U.S. insistence on retaining sole legal jurisdiction over American troops and differences on a schedule for the departure of the U.S. military. Iraqi officials want all foreign troops out by the end of 2011.
Crocker, 59, who became ambassador in March 2007 and is expected to leave his post at the the end of the Bush administration, is one of the most experienced diplomats in the Middle East. He has served as ambassador in Lebanon, Syria and Kuwait, and was ambassador to Pakistan before his appointment in Iraq.
He said it is becoming obvious that Iran wants the current negotiations to fail.
“The evidence is pretty clear. It is the stream of public statements coming out of Tehran, political and clerical figures, all criticizing the agreement. So they are being very open about their interference.”
In spite of insistence to the contrary, Crocker said, Iran shows a “fundamental desire to oppose the development of a fully secure and stable Iraq. I think they would like to keep Iraq off balance as a way of being able to control events here to the satisfaction of Tehran.”
The negotiations for a long-term security agreement are being carried out against the deadline of an expiring United Nations Security Council resolution at the end of this year that provides the legal basis for more than 140,000 U.S. forces in the country.
If and when an agreement is reached, it still must be ratified by the Iraqi parliament.
Crocker said he isn’t worried that time is running out. There are still three months for discussions, he said, and the parliament has been able to deal with complex issues quickly when it has to.
If the talks fail, the United States would have to go back to the United Nations to seek an extension of its mandate to be in Iraq, a potentially difficult move diplomatically.