Arabia and Iran in Iraq fix By
With Iran enhancing its
influence in Iraq - even by creating a "mini-Iran"
in the southern section of the country - Saudi
Arabia is left playing diplomatic catch-up in
trying to influence events.
underscores the power differential between Iran
and Saudi Arabia. Iran is a real power in Iraq,
while Saudi Arabia remains a "wanna-be power". It
also illustrates that Iran's strategy in
post-Saddam Hussein Iraq was well crafted to take
into account the
possibility of the US
The Iranians figured that
the US administration was more concerned about
toppling Saddam than establishing a stable order
in Iraq and that it lacked a cohesive
post-conflict plan. Iran thus concluded that chaos
would follow. What it could not have anticipated
was the magnitude of that chaos, a train of events
set in motion by the US deciding to abolish the
Iraqi army and de-Ba'athify the country.
In the broader context, Iran was driven by
another objective: ensuring that it would not
become the next victim of President George W
Bush's doctrine of "regime change". This, more
than anything else, would have driven Iran either
to exploit the Iraqi chaos to its advantage, or to
make its own contribution to worsen it. Either
way, political and religious realities were
overwhelmingly in favor of Iran.
Sixty-five percent of the Iraqi population
is Shi'ite. Iran and Iraq have had decades of
close cooperation and extensive exchanges on
religious issues. In the realm of politics, Iran
played a constant role in nurturing and supporting
anti-Saddam forces to catch the dictator off
guard. Consequently, no neighboring country knew
the political dynamics of Iraq better than Iran.
In the post-Saddam era, two Shi'ite
clerics were destined to work directly or
indirectly to substantiate Iran's political
objectives. Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the
Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, is
a pro-Iranian cleric. His Badr Organization was a
nuisance to Saddam and in the past three years has
emerged as a major militia.
The US had
cooperated with Hakim's forces during Saddam's
era. Perhaps based on that record, or maybe
because it is getting desperate about finding ways
to stabilize Iraq, the Bush administration
attempted to co-opt Hakim. It is not clear whether
Muqtada al-Sadr, meanwhile,
has emerged as a force unto himself. As the heir
of the Sadrist legacy, Muqtada is a proponent of
vilayat-e-faqih (rule of the clergy), a
model that prevails in Iran. He is not making much
noise about this issue at present as he is focused
on ousting the US from Iraq. This objective is
very dear to the hearts of the Iranians, although
Muqtada is not particularly pro-Iranian. Muqtada's
Mehdi Army, directly or indirectly, is playing
into the hands of Iran through its major role in
the sectarian war.
activated its own Quds forces - the special
command division of the Iranian Revolutionary
Guard Corps - early in the post-Saddam era. These
forces specialize in intelligence operations and,
most important, in unconventional warfare.
For political and religious reasons, Iran
never had any intention of leaving Iraq alone.
Even if the US were to succeed in stabilizing
Iraq, Iran was still going to challenge America's
presence there. The fact that the United States
has faltered in Iraq has made Iran's task of
enhancing its own influence considerably easier.
From the perspectives of gathering
intelligence, there is little doubt that the Quds
have done well. What is not clear is whether they
played any role in enhancing the capabilities of
Sunni insurgents and jihadis to take on the
Americans and the Iraqi security forces.
If Quds forces did play a role in training
Sunni insurgents in asymmetric tactics, Iran has,
indeed, taken a major gamble, as in all likelihood
the insurgents will turn against Iran once the
Americans are out of the country. But it is also
possible that Iran has calculated that ousting US
forces is crucial enough to justify the risk.
The overall outcome of Iran's complicated
maneuvers in Iraq is that its influence is
definitely on the rise, and it will focus on
constantly bleeding US forces, thereby increasing
the prospects of withdrawal.
Saudi Arabia Saudi Arabia does not fare
very well in this power game. Even though the
Sunni Arab population of Iraq is about 25%, the
Saudi rulers have no way of knowing what
percentage of that population really supports
al-Qaeda and other Islamists. All such forces are
acutely opposed to Saudi Arabia.
possible that Saudi intelligence forces are
cooperating with the remnants of Saddam's security
forces in an attempt to sabotage Iran's strategic
objectives. But this is a very tall order,
considering that Iranian intelligence forces have
most likely penetrated all regions of Iraq.
Equally important, they have been in Iraq for a
long time and know the terrain well.
Besides, Saudi Arabia cannot afford to
sabotage Iranian objectives without finding out
what the US is really up to in Iraq, and all
indications are that it will be around for some
Riyadh would thus conclude that,
instead of conducting a trench war with Iranian
intelligence, it would be preferable to rely on
conventional diplomacy for stabilizing Iraq - and
that this would be better done quietly behind
closed doors. Even as an advantaged actor, Iran
would very much prefer that.
leaders could not have been amused by King
Abdullah of Jordan's public musings about a
"Shi'ite crescent" a few months ago. They are not
interested in overplaying their card by
confronting Sunni states on that issue. They are
much too concerned about resolving their
multi-dimensional conflict with the Bush
administration and minimizing the chances of their
regime being changed. Cooperation between Iran and
Saudi Arabia would serve these goals.
the US, such cooperation, though it is not an
optimal development, may not be too harmful to its
interests. As a long shot, Iranian leaders may
even decide to persuade the Saudis to use their
influence in Washington to persuade the Bush
administration to engage Iran in comprehensive
dialogue. There is little evidence at present that
Riyadh has started such a campaign, but it could
happen in the coming weeks.
Ahrari can be reached at email@example.com.
His columns appear regularly in Asia Times
Online. His website: www.ehsanahrari.com.