Basra crisis is Iran's opportunity
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
In his surprise visit to al-Anbar province in Iraq on Monday, US President
George W Bush boasted of coalition troops' accomplishments in bringing
stability and uprooting the al-Qaeda menace with the help of Sunni tribes. At
the same time, the last British soldiers were vacating Basra in the south in
what a British paper described as "ignominious defeat".
The British withdrawal to the safety of their one remaining bunkered base at
the airport "will bring perils for US troops", according to a US commentator.
This is why the US military and
the White House - "at the highest echelon" - have been lobbying London over new
Prime Minister Gordon Brown's decision to phase out the British presence in
Brown, inheriting an explosive legacy from his predecessor, Tony Blair, has
delivered on his promises and the big issue now is whether or not the same
forces which constantly harassed the British forces in Basra will remain
operating on the outskirts of the city.
An even more important question is about the security vacuum that has been
created, in light of the inter-Shi'ite power struggle in Basra and, indeed, the
entire southern section of Iraq, which is overwhelmingly Shi'ite and within the
purview of Iran's regional politics.
Recalling Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's recent statement that Iran can
easily "fill the vacuum" of US forces, the situation in Basra may mean that
Tehran may be forced to play that role sooner than expected, depending on the
evolution or devolution of Basra's current state of emergency.
The ability of Iraqis to ensure a peaceful transfer of power, instead of a
nosedive toward anarchy-driven factional strife, should not be underestimated
however, particularly since Basra poses a litmus test of Shi'ite politics in
the broader context of Iraqi national politics.
For Iran, the British withdrawal from Basra represents a conundrum. On the one
hand Tehran counts it as a strategic gain that weakens the US's position with
regard to Iran, given the greater vulnerability of the land supply route from
Kuwait. But at the same time, the mere prospect of a security collapse in Basra
spells major new and unwanted headaches for Iran, which has always insisted on
an "orderly and timely" exit of foreign troops - in other words, no hasty and
Yet, that is exactly what has happened in Basra, and a security meltdown there
could easily translate into waves of Iran-bound refugees, thus warranting
Iran's preemptive mediation in the ongoing inter-Shi'ite power struggle. This
is mainly between and among the three dominant groups, Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi
Army and its sub-factions, the Fadhila Party presently running the city, and
the Supreme Iraq Islamic Council and its Badr militias.
Iran's already enormous influence in southern Iraq will likely grow more
powerful in the near future, although this will be determined to some extent by
political developments in Baghdad. For instance, a failure of the central
government to maintain national unity will exacerbate the centrifugal
tendencies that have primed southern Iraq as an Iranian sphere of influence.
"There are so many different scenarios in Basra and southern Iraq now, all tied
to the US-Iran rivalry and it is a sure bet that short of a US military
occupation [of southern Iraq] that is not feasible for the overstretched US
Army, the scenario of Iran's rising influence will predominate, in other words,
Iran is a sure winner of the British retreat," a Tehran analyst told the
And that means that the US now needs to engage Iran more than in the past to
play a constructive role in Iraq.
The US ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, has renewed the US's interest in a
follow-up discussion with Iran on Iraq's security, perhaps as a sign of
recognition of Tehran's growing clout and responsibility in oil-rich southern
Contrary to some Western analysts, Iran is not interested in turning southern
Iraq into its satellite and harvesting the benefits of a de facto partition of
the country. Rather, Iran still hopes that a strong, Iran-friendly national
government in Baghdad will triumph over the odds piled up against it so that
the two neighboring states can eventually remap the region's security calculus.
That expectation may have been compromised by the slew of difficulties facing
the Shi'ite-led government of Nuri al-Maliki in Baghdad, yet it is still the
luminous light that directs Iran's Iraq policy.
Thus, the Basra microcosm, conceived as threatened with further yet ultimately
manageable instability, fits into Iran's larger political map that connects
Iraqi provincial politics to the national and even regional politics on a
long-term basis, instead of looking for short-term gains.
Still, few analysts in Tehran are able to hide their rather euphoric reaction
to the news of the British withdrawal from Basra, which potentially spells more
trouble for those who are rattling sabers at Iran these days.
A US military option against Iran is now even less likely in light of the power
vacuum in southern Iraq that, if need be, could be utilized by Tehran to
undermine the stability of the US's presence in the rest of Iraq.
With Iran sensing both opportunity and crisis in southern Iraq, the stage is
now set for a new depth to Iran's purely Shi'ite or Islamist politics that
traverses narrow national(ist) considerations. After all, the ethos of Islamic
revolution has always focused on Islamist solidarity and kinship, transcending
limited territorial gains or considerations.
That is precisely why any fears of Iran's machinations to carve out southern
Iraq into its sphere of influence are at bottom baseless. Iran will do so only
as a last resort when and if a nightmare scenario of collapse of the center and
irreversible regional autonomy appears inescapable.
That is not Iran's reading of the situation right now, even though policymakers
have been toying with scenario-building in Iraq. Their threat analyses of Iraq
do not envisage panic, partly as a result of Iran's thorough familiarity and
rapport with the various Shi'ite factions, including the Mahdi militia,
irrespective of Muqtada's occasional public misgivings about Iran's influence.
The Iranians' largely upbeat prognosis is in sharp contrast with the doomsday
scenario seen in the US press, which depicts Basra as "plagued" with
corruption, violence and gangsterism. There is a chance that the Iraqi army and
police in and around Basra, deeply connected to various Shi'ite factions, might
turn against each other, in which case Basra will disintegrate as a unified
Iran may well provide the glue that keeps that from happening - all the more
reason for the US and its allies not to view every Iranian involvement in Iraq
negatively, or as an act of subversion. Iran's vested interest in Iraq's
national unity and territorial integrity translates into a calming influence in
southern Iraq that can turn volatile only if other parts of Iraq break loose
and set in motion southern Iraq's partition.
But, as stated above, Iran is not particularly worried about such a prospect at
the moment and considers the other regional players, such as Syria and Turkey,
sufficiently in sync with its Iraq policy to stave off the "nightmare
Yet, simultaneously there is another "nightmare scenario", that is, the
possibility of a US strike against Iran's nuclear facilities that has been
preoccupying Iran's leaders, which raises in turn the matter of linkage with
Iraq. That possibility has now been dealt an indirect blow by developments in
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New
Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and co-author of
"Negotiating Iran's Nuclear Populism", Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume
XII, Issue 2, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu. He also wrote "Keeping
Iran's nuclear potential latent", Harvard International Review, and is author
Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction.