Washington's befuddling line on Iran
By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - As US and Iranian diplomats met in Baghdad on Tuesday for a second
round of talks on Iraq, the domestic US political climate appeared decidedly
more supportive of an aggressive US posture toward Iran than existed just a few
months ago, reflecting the apparent triumph of the Bush administration's
narrative on Iran's role in Iraq.
That new narrative threatens to obscure the bigger picture of Iranian policy
toward Iraq, widely recognized by regional specialists. Iran's strategic
interests in Iraq are far more
compatible with those of the United States than those of the Sunni regimes in
the region with which the US has aligned itself.
Contrary to the official narrative, Iranian support for Shi'ites is not aimed
at destabilizing the country but does serve a rational Iranian desire to
maximize its alliances with Iraqi Shi'ite factions, in the view of specialists
on Iranian policy and on the security of the Persian Gulf region.
Symptomatic of the toughening attitude in the US Congress toward Iran was the
97-0 vote in the Senate last week for a resolution drafted by its leading
proponent of war against Iran, Senator Joe Lieberman, stating, "The murder of
members of the United States Armed Forces by a foreign government or its agents
is an intolerable act of hostility against the United States." The resolution
demanded that the government of Iran "take immediate action" to end all forms
of support it is providing to Iraqi militias and insurgents.
That vote followed several months of intensive Bush administration propaganda
charging that Iran is arming Shi'ite militias in Iraq, and characterizing
Iranian financial support and training for Shi'ite militias as an aggressive
effort to target US troops and to destabilize Iraq.
But this administration line ignores the fact that Iran's primary ties in Iraq
have always been with those groups who have supported the government of Prime
Minister Nuri al-Maliki, including the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and Da'wa
Party and their paramilitary arm, the Badr Corps, rather than with
anti-government militias. That indicates that Iran's fundamental interest is to
see the government stabilize the situation in the country, according to
Professor Mohsen Milani of Florida International University, a specialist on
Iran's national-security policies.
Milani argues that Iran's interests are more closely aligned with those of the
US than any other state in the region. "I can't think of two other countries in
the region who want the Iraqi government to succeed," said Milani.
He believes the Iranians are so upset with the efforts by the Saudis to
undermine the Shi'ite-dominated government that they may try to use the talks
with the US on the security of Iraq to introduce intelligence they have
gathered on Saudi support for al-Qaeda and Sunni insurgents.
Trita Parsi, author of a new book on Iranian-Israeli security relations, agrees
that Iran's support for the Maliki government stands in contrast to the
attitude of the leading US Sunni ally in Middle East, Saudi Arabia. "Look at
what the Saudis are calling the Maliki government - a puppet government," he
observed. "You're not hearing that from Iran."
James A Russell, a lecturer in national-security affairs at the Naval
Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, and a specialist on security
affairs in the Gulf region, agrees that Iran and the US do indeed share common
strategic interests in Iraq, at least in terms of rational, realist definitions
of strategic interest.
The problem, Russell said, is that the history of the relationship and domestic
political constituencies pose serious obstacles to realizing those common
interests. Two such obstacles are "the very powerful political constituency for
attacking Iran" and support for Israel, said Russell.
James Dobbins, former US ambassador to Afghanistan and director of the Rand
Corporation's International Security and Defense Policy Center, agrees that
Iran is not trying to destabilize Iraq. "They have been supportive of the
government and hope it prevails," he said. As for the chief source of
instability in Iraq, the Sunni-Shi'ite conflict, Dobbins noted that "Iranians
don't see anything to be gained by Sunni-Shi'a conflict in Iraq".
Contrary to the impression conveyed by the Bush administration, Iran's ties to
Shi'ite militias do not represent a new development. They have been a constant
in Iranian policy since the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime opened the
way for Shi'ite militias to return from Iran in 2003.
In August 2005, a Time magazine story reported that Iranians were providing
support to what were then called "Shi'ite insurgents" but quoted Western
diplomats as saying that they "appear to be acting defensively rather than
offensively". Those sources noted that the Iranian assistance to Shi'ite
militias was "dwarfed by the amount of money and materiel flowing in from
Iraq's Arab neighbors to Sunni insurgents".
Iran specialists and regional analysts agree that Iran's ties with militias
that attack US and British forces as well as government targets are in essence
a way of ensuring that Iran will be on good terms with any future regime in
Baghdad. "They're trying to hedge their bets," said Dobbins, "because they're
not sure who's going to prevail."
Russell agreed that Iranian support for militias is not aimed at destabilizing
Iraq but at establishing good relations with every Shi'ite faction. "This is a
logical step to protect their interests," he said.
The US military presence is an obvious point of US-Iranian contention over
Iraq. Iran has shown a relatively high level of tolerance for the US occupation
in the past but has grown increasingly critical of that presence over the past
year. Speaking at the World Economic Forum in May, Iranian Foreign Minister
Manouchehr Mottaki charged that the US military presence was a cause of
instability rather than a solution for it.
"We believe that sooner or later they have to decide to withdraw their troops
from Iraq because that is the cause for the continuation of terrorist
activities," he said.
The changing Iranian posture toward the US presence may reflect the relative
weakening of the Maliki government and the emergence of the fiercely
nationalist Muqtada al-Sadr as a major political force. Sadr has brought the
demand for a timetable for US withdrawal to the center of his political
strategy in recent months.
Given the uncertain political future of the country and the growing demand by
Shi'ite militias - including those that have been affiliated with Muqtada's
Mahdi Army - for support for armed activities against the occupation, Iran
probably felt that it had little choice but to respond positively.
Although the spokesman for the US command recently suggested that Iran has been
supporting "rogue elements" fighting against coalition forces, last November US
intelligence officials confirmed that Mahdi Army units were being trained by
Iranian ally Hezbollah in Lebanon with Muqtada's knowledge.
But Iran may also share the interest of the Maliki government in having
continued US support for the development of Shi'ite security forces. "Tehran is
not necessarily in favor of a complete pullout," said Russell.
The actual degree of convergence between US and Iranian interests on Iraq could
still be a factor in the bilateral talks on the subject, despite the
determination of still-powerful Vice President Dick Cheney to make sure they
Gareth Porter is a historian and national-security policy analyst. His
latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to
War in Vietnam, was published in June 2005.