CNN speaks with Fareed Zakaria about Iran’s role in Iraq – and former Vice President Dick Cheney’s criticism of the Obama administration’s Iraq policy. This is an edited version of the transcript.
The irony is that Washington has tried for years to keep Iran out of Iraq. Is the notion of U.S. and Iran discussions desperation?
I don't think it’s desperation. I think it's unfortunate that it's happening in these kinds of crisis circumstances. But the truth of the matter is Iran has been influencing and supporting this government from the start. Many people believe that Iran has had more influence with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki than we have. Remember, al-Maliki is a Shiite, just like the Iranians. He lived in Tehran for many years when he was in exile from Saddam Hussein. And Iran has funded most of the major Shia parties.
So Iran already has lots of influence in Iraq. We don't have the ability to change that. The question we could ask is, are there some areas where we have similar or shared interests, such as keeping these hard line jihad terrorists out of the main population centers of Iraq?
I think we do. And let's remember that Iran and the United States similarly shared some strategic goals in Afghanistan. Iran didn't like the Taliban. We didn't like the Taliban. They kind of helped us when we ousted the Taliban in 2001 and 2002. So I don't think this is unprecedented.
The way the president frames it, Washington is backing this imperfect government in Baghdad against these callous, dangerous terrorists. And then you have others just saying, plain and simple, Sunnis versus Shiites, sectarian warfare. Terrorism vs sectarian – why is that distinction so important?
It's a good question. It makes you see how confusing and muddled the situation is. Because what we're looking for is the good guy – we're trying to figure out who are the good guys we support. It turns out there are no good guys in Iraq. The “good guys,” the government of Iraq, is itself very sectarian. It's a Shia government that has been oppressing the Sunnis. The Sunnis [involved] are hardline Sunnis and increasingly turning toward terrorists and jihadis, so they're clearly the bad guys.
But of course not all the Sunnis are bad.
Or all Shia. So what the president is saying is, if you guys can get your act together and create an inclusive government, we're willing to provide you with military assistance. We're willing to try and back you. But we don't want to do it in a context where we will be seen as just supporting one side in a civil war.
So I think the president is right to try to condition America's support on, at the very least, the strong appearance, if not the reality, that we are not picking sides in a sectarian war.
So you have a decade in Iraq, and it’s still broken. Is there anyone who supported the war who is credible?
Well, I think the biggest problem here is that the Bush administration, after the invasion, really exacerbated all the sectarian differences we're now seeing. So clearly, invading Iraq was a mistake. But my point is, in the first month after the invasion, when they were still declaring victory, the Bush administration disavowed the Sunnis and empowered these hardline Shia rulers.
So now it's a little odd for people like Vice President Cheney and Paul Bremer, the former ambassador of Iraq, to say we should try to get al-Maliki to include the Sunnis – you're the guys who put him in power in the first place. You're the guys who disempowered the Sunnis and created or exacerbated these sectarian differences.
So it was a very odd critique given that in many ways, there were key policies of the Bush administration right after the invasion that exacerbated these sectarian tensions and the civil war that we are now living with.
Are you surprised by the fact they're coming forward, penning these opinion pieces, coming on national TV?
Well, you would hope there would be some sense of being willing to say, look, we got some things wrong. And we got some things right. I look at my own experience with Iraq. I got a bunch of things wrong, I got a bunch of things right. But I think that the odd thing here is, all of history begins in 2011 for Dick Cheney, when Obama decides to have the troops withdraw. Forgetting the Bush administration actually negotiated the document that said all U.S. forces would leave Iraq in 2011. That wasn’t Obama. Obama simply ratified it and continued in that sense a Bush administration strategy.
So again, it's a sort of strange historical amnesia that forgets that it was George Bush who said all American troops would leave Iraq in 2011.