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    Middle East
     Nov 18, 2006
Managing Iraq's collapse
By Mahan Abedin

As the United States gradually retreats from Iraq, the stakes for Iran rise accordingly. The long-awaited Iraq Study Group report - which will likely shape US policy in Iraq for the next two years - will start this process in earnest.

The opportunities for Iran are numerous, but the potential risks could be calamitous. For nearly four years, Iran has sat back while the US repeatedly blundered in Iraq, all the while exploiting the situation with almost breathless subtlety and precision. This

is likely to change as the US presence fades, thereby exposing the Islamic Republic to the chaos that is tearing Iraq apart.

As the stakes rise in Iraq, Iranian policymakers will finally have to clarify their position on Iraq and act accordingly. The true extent of Iranian influence in Iraq will also become clear as calls grow for the government in Tehran to use whatever leverage it has to ease the conflict between the Arab Sunni guerrilla movement and the Shi'ite-dominated regime in Baghdad.

Iraq's ability to surprise
Four years ago - as the United States and the United Kingdom were preparing to invade Iraq - this author explained that regime change in Baghdad was more welcome in Tehran than in Washington, DC. Moreover, I argued that Iran would emerge as the outright winner of intervention in Iraq, both in the short and the long term. [1] While Iran has clearly been the winner in the short term, whether it will emerge as the ultimate beneficiary of the collapse of the Ba'athist regime is still debatable.

Surprise developments in Iraq
The sectarian terrorism started by al-Qaeda and the so-called Salafi-jihadis immediately after the downfall of Saddam Hussein finally sparked a wide-scale sectarian conflict, especially after the bombing of the Samarra Shrine in February.

For a long while it was hoped that the new Shi'ite elites - composed of influential elements in the government, the major Shi'ite political parties and the religious establishment in Najaf - would use all their influence to ensure that Iraqi Shi'ites did not retaliate for the extremely provocative attacks against them. The reason for this was simple: the Shi'ites needed to focus on consolidating their hold over the country and not get sucked into a fratricidal war that would ultimately destroy Iraq and thus the Shi'ites' new-found power.

The resolve of the Shi'ite elites to resist retaliating faltered for two reasons.

First and foremost, the ferocity of the extremist Sunni attacks on the Shi'ites took everyone by surprise. The rhetorical venom of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his ilk was translated into grisly slaughter, as the breathtaking extremity inherent in the more reactionary forms of Salafism took hold over some sections of Iraq's insurgent community. Notwithstanding the remarkable patience and self-control of the Shi'ite elites, the instinct to respond to such gratuitous and mindless slaughter could simply not be suppressed indefinitely.

Second, the extent of Muqtada al-Sadr's power and influence was consistently underestimated. The so-called "Sadrist Movement" has emerged as the only truly national and grassroots force in Iraq. The Sadrists, and their offshoots, in effect control southern Iraq (with the exception of Basra and the surrounding areas); their influence is deeply embedded in every institution, particularly the police and the myriad security forces that have sprung up in the past three years.

It was often assumed that the Sadrists could be a bridge to the Arab Sunni guerrilla movement, on account of their nationalism, which is wary of both Iranian and Arab influence in Iraq. This hypothesis was partially proved in April 2004, as the insurgents in Fallujah made common cause with Muqtada's fighters in Najaf. But the specter of unity did not go beyond rhetoric and imagery, and in any case it collapsed altogether as the extremists in the insurgency significantly increased anti-Shi'ite attacks in 2005. The Sadrists have since emerged as a sectarian force in all but name. It is quite possible that most of the sectarian slaughter (especially in and around Baghdad) is now the work of the multitude of militias operating under the banner of the so-called Mehdi Army.

The upshot of the argument here is that Iraq is unlikely to survive the current civil war. It may remain a unitary state for a considerable amount of time (in effect kept on life support by US, Turkish and Iranian geopolitical considerations in the region), but it is highly unlikely ever to experience the cohesion and sense of destiny that it did prior to the invasion of March 2003.

Iran's outdated aims
Given the near-inevitability of the fragmentation of Iraq, a much deeper understanding of Iranian interests in Iraq is required. Moreover, it means that some of these interests must be either revised or relinquished altogether. In short, the matrix of interests and risks that informed Iranian attitudes toward the US-led intervention in March 2003 are now seriously outdated.

A brief overview of events since the invasion should clarify the complexity of Iran's current position.

On the eve of the invasion, there was a convergence of Iranian and US interests. Both sides stood to benefit from the downfall of Saddam and the creation of a new Iraqi political society. This was reinforced by America's willingness to work with pro-Iranian Shi'ite parties to create new institutions in Iraq.

However, this convergence of interests was always hostage to long-standing and deep hostilities between the Islamic Republic and the United States. Indeed, neither side publicly acknowledged the quiet accommodation; in fact both parties ratcheted up the rhetoric, with the Americans accusing Iran of aiding the insurgency and the Iranians blaming the US "occupation" for all of Iraq's ills.

In any case, events on the ground in Iraq reinforced the propaganda of both sides and helped incrementally to unravel the convergence of interests that had marked the early period of the occupation.

The rise of the Iraqi "resistance" was the single most important factor in this process. The Iraqi insurgency may have surprised the Americans, but it was predicted by the Iranians, who had a far greater knowledge of Iraq. The Islamic Republic had been fighting Saddam's regime for more than two decades, enabling Iranian military and security institutions to develop an advanced architecture of knowledge, in effect giving them an unassailable advantage over other countries.

US accusations about Iranian complicity in the insurgency were driven by the humiliation of the knowledge that the Iranians were reveling in the Americans' difficulties, rather than any belief that the Islamic Republic was helping Iraqi rebels.

As for the Iranians, they have had an ambivalent attitude toward the insurgency from the outset. Humiliation of the US had to be closely balanced with the interests and security of Iraq's new Shi'ite elites. This intricate calculation became more burdensome as the Iraqi insurgent landscape grew more complex. In fact, the Iranians may have made miscalculations of their own, not least in not anticipating the ferocity of the anti-Shi'ite onslaught.

Understanding the jihadis
This miscalculation is partly rooted in misunderstanding al-Qaeda and the wider Salafi-jihadist movement.

While the core of old al-Qaeda does not wish to spark a general Shi'ite-Sunni civil war, it still went along with the anti-Shi'ite plans of the Salafi-jihadis in Iraq. This strategy is informed by a relatively good understanding of the sectarian fault lines in Iraq that have always determined every aspect of that country's national life.

In short, if you are interested in defeating the Americans in Iraq, the best strategy is to start a civil war, and the only way to do this is to hit the Shi'ites hard enough that they begin retaliating. It is a clever strategy that is becoming more successful by the day.

The start of serious sectarian conflict has destroyed much of the implicit Iranian-US understanding in Iraq. The Iranians are fearful that as Iraq sinks deeper into chaos, the Americans will be tempted to align their interests in Iraq more closely with those of Arab Sunni states, in particular Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

Certainly as the Americans begin their withdrawal in earnest, they will have less incentive to maintain their working relationship with the Shi'ite Islamists who control the fledgling government in Baghdad. The collapse of this "functional" relationship will remove the last remaining link of Iranian-US detente in Iraq.

Iran in Iraq
Recently, a senior Iranian diplomat who has almost 26 years' experience of dealing with Iraq told me: "Iran started with 0% in Iraq in 2003 and gradually reached 30% in terms of influence, whereas the Americans started with 90% and have come down to 20%." This remarkable statement by someone who knows exactly what he is talking about is the surest insight into the graduated and subtle strategy of the Islamic Republic in Iraq.

Appreciating Iran's position in Iraq requires a proper understanding of the drivers of Iranian influence. Much clarity is needed here, as Iran's influence is often distorted, exaggerated or played down, according to the agenda of the analyst.

The greatest distortion has been from Arab Sunni quarters in Iraq who exaggerate ridiculously about Iranian influence in their country, to the point of accusing Iran of being the real occupying power. This neatly converges with the rhetoric of some insurgent groups in Iraq who bemoan an "invisible" Iranian occupation masked by the highly conspicuous US military presence.

Unfortunately, less outrageous forms of such banal analysis have often colored Western reporting of this issue. Iran is consistently accused of influencing the main Shi'ite parties, penetrating Iraqi security forces and being generally intent on the insidious conquest of Iraq.

First and foremost, Iran's influence on Hezb al-Da'wa and the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) is often exaggerated. While these organizations had considerable contact with Iranian military and security institutions prior to the March 2003 invasion, they have been Iraqi through and through from the outset, and have carefully developed a vast political constituency in Iraq since April 2003. Indeed, much of the propaganda against these organizations comes from people who are intensely jealous of their successes.

Not only are Da'wa and SCIRI accused of being Iranian pawns, they also stand accused of facilitating the US occupation in Iraq. What seems to have been generally misunderstood is the very nature of elite Shi'ite attitudes toward the United States. While these elites share their Iranian co-religionists' deep mistrust of the US, they are mindful of the urgent "functional" value of a workable relationship with the Americans. This view was articulated to the author by senior SCIRI official and now Deputy Foreign Minister Hamed Bayati in May 2003, barely a few weeks after the fall of Baghdad. [2]

While the Islamic Republic clearly continues to maintain a good working relationship with Da'wa and SCIRI, it appreciates these parties' prioritizing of careful political networking within Iraq - over and above transnational links - as the key to long-term success. Therefore, the main bastion of Iranian influence is not found in the government in Baghdad, but in the Shi'ite heartlands of the south.

Iran and the Sadrists
Ironically, the Iranians have managed to penetrate the Sadrists heavily, a movement that was originally the most anti-Iranian of all Iraqi Shi'ite organizations.

The fragmentation of the Sadr movement over the past two years has reinforced Iranian influence over it. The Iranians have effectively exploited the divisions and points of friction inside the movement to build an impressive intelligence- and influence-wielding architecture in the south.

This has served three strategic objectives: first, it has made life difficult for British forces in the south; second, it has given the Iranians and their allies real influence over policing and security; and third, it has given Iran a very powerful armed leverage should the Iranian-US cold war turn into a hot war inside Iraq.

More than any other factor, it is this deep Iranian penetration of militias and networks that are ultimately loyal to Muqtada and his circle that has made the Islamic Republic arguably the most important power-broker in Iraq. But if Iran's influence in Iraq does indeed exceed that of the US, in today's chaotic Iraq this only increases the Islamic Republic's responsibilities and risk portfolio.
The key challenge for Iran in the years ahead is to manage its network of influence in a steadily fragmenting Iraq. Even if Iraq retains its status as a unitary state, its intrinsic constitutional features will likely change beyond recognition. The best that Iraqi nationalists can hope for is a weak federal state that will simply delay the inevitable fragmentation.

Long-term Iranian influence in Iraq requires a stable regime in Baghdad. This is why the Iranians should be deeply fearful of the sectarian slaughter that is tearing Iraq apart. Moreover, the Iranians would do well to appreciate the extent of anti-Iran feelings in Iraq. General distrust of Iran is widespread in Iraq, much of it the product of nearly 40 years of relentless anti-Iranian propaganda by the Ba'athists. Given the chaos in Iraq, much of what the Iranians have built can unravel very quickly. Furthermore, any brazen interference in Iraqi affairs risks provoking the ugliest forms of Iraqi anti-Iranianism.

More broadly, the success or failure of Iran's strategy in Iraq will have serious implications for its ambitions in the region and beyond. The Islamic Republic aspires to a leadership position in the Islamic world. This realizable objective will be imperiled if it is seen to be acting on behalf of pure national or sectarian interests. The risks are indeed very high and the upshot is that while Iraq has been a US problem up to now, it will soon be an Iranian one.

1. "Iranian Views on Regime Change in Iraq", Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, Vol 4, No 11, November-December 2002.
2. "Interview with Hamed Bayati", Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, Vol 5, No 5, May 2003.

(This article first appeared in SaudiDebate.com. Published with permission.)

(Copyright 2006 SaudiDebate.com.)

US goes from imperial offense to defense (Nov 17, '06)

Incoherence stymies US's Iran policy (Nov 16, '06)

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