Archive for May 13th, 2008

The Iranian Connection

Iraqi officials acknowledge that Iran has been involved in securing terms for recent truces in both Basra and Sadr City. These truces are essentially victories for Moqtada al-Sadr and the Mahdi army, though their terms on their face seem to favor the government. The government can send its troops into Sadr City and Basra, and the Mahdi army agrees to limit its visibility. Yet the Mahdi army is not disarming, and raids/efforts to disarm are being called off. In essence the truce is cosmetic – the Iraqi government won’t do anything real to limit al Sadr’s power, as long as he doesn’t do anything to make it appear that he has that power. The US can point to Iraqi troops in Sadr city and claim it’s a step forward. Supporters of the administration will consider this progress. In Sadr’s thinking, this simply will hasten the American departure. But everyone in Iraq knows that the Mahdi army remains armed and independent.

That, of course, is only part of the problem for US policy makers. Another is intense Iraqi corruption, something the US countenanced after the war, apparently thinking that it simply is a part of Iraqi culture, and something that could benefit American companies. Yet that corruption is the strongest anti-democratic force, and has turned Iraq into a place where different ethnic and interest groups compete to benefit themselves, rather than cooperate to create a stable democratic system. Moreover, this is so intense and embedded that there is really nothing we can do to alter it. The chance for a stable Iraqi democracy, if it ever existed, is gone. At best one can hope for a kind of balance of power between different groups that doesn’t explode into civil war conditions like those of 2006. And, while partition remains the best option, divisions between Shi’ite groups complicate matters and assure that Iran will play a major role in Iraq’s future.

What bothers American policy makers the most is the fact that the Iraqi government and armed forces are infiltrated by and have close ties with various Iranian factions. The US realizes that Iran right now is winning the “war” for the future of Iraq, and they are doing so with covert and hard to measure methods.

What Iran offers the US is a way out of Iraq: declare victory and leave. If we recognize that the US won’t be in a position to have permanent bases and a major influence in Iraq, then the US can leave a relatively stable Iraq. Having armed both the Mahdi army and the Badr militia, recently incorporated into the Iraqi army (though apparently while maintaining independent organizational structures), Iran will be in a position to assure that the new Iraq will not work against Iranian interests. The Sunni groups, the original insurgents, were recently wooed by the US into even more than truce, but even an alliance of sorts against their common foe: al qaeda (also an enemy of Iran). These tribal forces, called the Sunni “awakening” are not loyal to the Iraqi government, and in fact have threatened violence against the government. The “surge” has increased the distance between the Sunnis and Shi’ites, even as the goal of reconciliation was proclaimed. Iraqi leaders have mastered the art of making public agreements that play in the US press, while ignoring them on the ground in the Machivellian quest for power. Meanwhile in Kurdistan, the Kurds continue self-rule, paying only lip service to the existence of an independent and unified Iraq.

This makes it easier to understand US frustration and saber rattling concerning Iran. If Iran ultimately benefits from the US invasion of Iraq and has a strong role in shaping political outcomes there, the US war against Saddam Hussein will end up benefiting a foe in the region far more powerful than Saddam was. That can’t sit well with the White House, and they want to do whatever they can to prevent that from happening. But right now Iran has the upper hand, and despite threats of striking Iranian special forces or expected nuclear sites – which really won’t hurt Iran much – there isn’t a lot the US can do at this point.

The Iraq war is already a failure on almost every metric. It’s rationale (Iraqi WMD) didn’t exist, the hope that it would become a model for Arab democracy seems as distant as ever, and the cost in terms of American lives, Iraqi lives, money and American political unity has been higher than any benefit one can see. Al qaeda has not been hurt, and in fact extremists have used the Iraq war to recruit and gain support. But if in the end a stable Iraq is bought at the price of empowering and strengthening Iran, the irony will be especially cruel. It will be a clear lesson in the dangers involved in thinking military power can shape political outcomes.

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