Iran Threat? Nobody Told the Iraqis…

Iraq’s President Talabani, a Kurd, in Tehran with
Iran’s supreme leader

It’s amazing, frankly, that even as the Scooter Libby trial reveals the machinations of an Administration determined to prevent any jabs of reality from puncturing the “Iraq threat” scarecrow it had built to stampede Americans into war, the same crowd are getting a free hand to build an “Iran threat” scarecrow.

But this time, even if the U.S. media is reluctant to bluntly challenge the suppositions being sold by the Administration, realities are beginning to intrude. Consider this lede from a New York Times story this week on Lebanon: “In an unusual collaboration that could complicate American policy in the region, Iran and Saudi Arabia have been mediating an agreement to end Lebanon’s violent political crisis.”

This, on the same day that President Bush cites Iran’s actions in Lebanon as further evidence of the “Iran threat” to the region. But we learn three important things from the Times story, which reports that Iran’s national security chief Ali Larijani has been working with top Saudi officials to broker a political deal that will avert a civil war in Lebanon.

  • The first is that Iran is actually a sober player in the region, not looking to set it aflame, but instead to consolidate the gains it has made across the region — as a major beneficiary of the democratic process in both Lebanon and Iraq, where it’s allies have emerged as the chosen leaders of large Shiite populations — and avert instability.
  • The second is that, as we’ve argued previously, it is not the dangerously provocative posturing of Ahmedinajad that defines Iranian policy — for the simple reason that in Iran, the president does not control foreign or national security policy. Larijani appears to have the backing of Supreme Leader Khamenei to make pragmatic accommodations to calm things down. These people are conservative nationalists, but they are also pragmatists. Again, as I noted previously, we can expect a lot more of this flexibility from Tehran in the months ahead, aimed at isolating and confounding U.S. attempts to build pressure against Iran.
  • The third, and perhaps most important lesson is that while the U.S. continues to maintain its absurd refusal to talk to Iran, deluding itself that it is “isolating” Tehran, Washington’s key allies in the region, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and especially Iraq (which, frankly, is not necessarily an ally, as such) are actively engaging with Tehran, seeking cooperation in pursuit of stability. Increasingly, and not only on Iran (also on Hamas, for example), U.S. allies in the region are simply ignoring the U.S. hard line because it offers no plausible solutions.

    The frontline of Washington’s new aggressive posture towards Iran, of course, is in Iraq. Bush has issued what Juan Cole has archly described as a ‘fatwa’ allowing U.S. troops to kill Iranian operatives, and warns that this provocative position could touch of a much wider and more tragic conflict. Cole also highlights what I think is the most important reality that is largely overlooked in U.S. media discussions over “Iranian meddling” in Iraq — the fact that Iran’s presence and influence in Iran is actually welcomed by the political leaders democratically elected by the majority of Iraqis. Both the Shiite and Kurdish leadership are longtime friends of Tehran, having cooperated actively against Saddam Hussein.

    Bush loves to sell this fiction that “Iraqis voted for a government of national unity and now Iran and others are trying to subvert that.” That’s just a crock. Iraqis did not vote for “national unity” in the two democratic elections held since Saddam fell; they voted overwhelmingly by sect and ethnic group for parties committed to advancing sectarian and ethnic agendas, even if they made a rhetorical nod to the principle of national unity. (The basic idea of hegemony in politics is that you present your own sectional interests as the national interest — you’d think oligarchic Republicans would know that better than most!) So while U.S. politicians and pundits begin alleging that Prime Minister Maliki is committed to Shiite power, as if this was a hidden agenda, they’re ignoring the obvious: It’s not a hidden agenda at all; Shiite power was the very basis of his electoral coalition. And it governs in alliance principally with the Kurdish bloc, whose program is essentially Kurdish independence. Neither is particular sympathetic to Sunni concerns, having suffered under the Sunni elite in Saddam’s time. The Shiites insist on having a share of power in Baghdad commensurate with their demographic majority, and the Kurds don’t much care what’s going on in Baghdad as long as it doesn’t impinge on their de facto sovereignty in the north — but they are at odds with the Sunnis over the fate of disputed cities, most notably Kirkuk.

    From the very outset, this democratically elected government was an obstacle to the realization of U.S. goals in Iraq, because it didn’t necessarily share them. Not in terms of the desired domestic political arrangements for a post-Saddam Iraq; not in terms of U.S. policy in the Middle East more widely; and certainly not on Iran. And with Iran now identified as the premier strategic threat, the U.S. objectives in the region had to be recallibrated, and suddenly the old Arab autocracies that were to be swept away in the “creative chaos” of the U.S. democratic revolution in the Middle East were now, instead, to be rehabilitated as the key “moderates” holding the line against the “extremism” represented by Iran and other Islamist elements. Those Arab autocracies are, of course, quite hostile to the Shiite-Kurdish regime in Baghdad, which is why they’ve been so non-commital in response to Condi’s latest “looking busy” tour of the region. Instead, they’re warning that they could send money, weapons and even troops to help the Sunnis.

    Some of those regimes have urged the U.S. to do more to combat Iranian influence in Iraq, which the U.S. has lately shown a great eagerness to do. But, in case anybody failed to notice, Iraq’s government is not complaining about “Iranian meddling” in Iraq, but they are complaining about U.S. efforts to hound Iranian operatives there. Key Shiite and Kurdish leaders have bluntly criticized the U.S. for arresting Iranian diplomats in Erbil last week, and have warned it against doing so again. The Shiites, of course, have a long history of intimate ties with Tehran, but even the key Kurdish parties have a long history of close cooperation with Iran. And, as my colleague Andrew Butters notes, the looming conflict with the U.S. over Kirkuk (Washington may postpone a referendum on its status in order to maintain a hope of bringing the Sunnis into a new political accord in Baghdad) actually strengthens the Kurds motivation to make common cause with the likes of Syria and Iran. So, to the extent that the U.S. moves to confront Iran in Iraq, it quite simply parts ways with the Iraqi government. And then the question becomes what exactly the U.S. is doing in the country.

    The extent to which the U.S. begins to confront Iran on Iraqi soil is more likely to hasten the day when Iraq’s leaders ask the U.S. to leave, whatever the consequences. The idea that Iraq can be stabilized without acknowledging substantial Iranian interest and influence in that country is another relic of the Bush-Cheney Iraq fantasy. Pursuing that fantasy now will only hasten the collapse of the U.S. hold on Iraq, and offer America the prospect of another unwinnable war.

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    32 Responses to Iran Threat? Nobody Told the Iraqis…

    1. Ziad says:

      The Problem for Bush-Cheney is when the Baker commision, et al suggests talking to Iran, they don’t mean asking it nicely to do what it refuses under threat. They mean striking a deal that reflects the current balance of power which as never before favors Iran.

      But the U.S. did not invade Iraq in order to cut a deal. It invaded to ensure that it would be the dominant power in the Gulf permanently. Dealing with Iran and Syria defeats the purpose.

      Iran has played very well in Iraq, and seems to have thought 10 moves ahead, but may end up being a victim of its own success. In this game of chess is between a clever but anoying 12 year old and a clumsy but large weight lifter, the Iranians are winning. But the frustrated loser may just knock the figures off the board and start swinging punches.

      P.S. I’ve come accross Arnold Evans’ site and it has some good commentary;

    2. Bernard Chazelle says:

      It’s hard to find humor in any of this, but for some reason this made me smile:

      Maliki: “We have told the Iranians and the Americans, ‘We know that you have a problem with each other, but we are asking you, please solve your problems outside Iraq.”

      I say we exile Bush and Ahmadinejad to Antarctica, where they can fight out all they want.

    3. Bernard Chazelle says:

      fight out –> fight it out

    4. Mike says:

      To the extent that Iran is capitalizing on financial gains across the region, and is now developing a bank in Iraq, time is rapidly running out for the Americans. I figure it will be only a matter of time before the Iranians find a way to provide massive aid and security to Iraq’s political leaders without all the preconditions attached by the current American rulers, and at that point, you can expect the political spectrum in Iraq to unite in asking the US to leave.

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