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Friend or Foe?

Author: Ray Takeyh, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies
April 15, 2008
International Herald Tribune


In the past week, a parade of Bush administration officials have offered a new threat and new justification for prolonging America’s errant war in Iraq: containing Iran.

The ironic aspect of this is that Iran not only enjoys intimate relations with the Shiite government in Baghdad, but that its objectives in Iraq largely coincide with those of the United States.

President George W. Bush took the lead in the week’s hyperbolic assertions by claiming, “Iraq is the convergence point for two of the greatest threats to America in this century: Al Qaeda and Iran.” Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned against Iran’s “malign influence,” while General David Petraeus stressed that “Iran has fueled violence in a particularly damaging way through its lethal support for special groups.”

So let’s take a look at Iran’s interests in Iraq, and how Tehran has gone about realizing those aims.

Contrary to Washington’s presumptions, Iran’s achievement of its objectives is not predicated on violence or the insurgency, but on the unfolding democratic process. The overarching Iranian aim is to prevent Iraq from once more emerging as a military or ideological threat.

Over the past two decades, an uneasy consensus has evolved within Iran that the cause of Iraq’s aggressions was the Sunni domination of its politics. The minority Sunni sect sought to justify its political hegemony by embarking on pan-Arabist crusades, including the invasion of Iran and a determination to dominate the Gulf. Thus the empowerment of a friendlier Shiite regime is an essential objective for Iran.

Yet another important Iranian objective is to prevent Iran from fragmenting into three unstable entities. Iran is an intact and ancient nation whose boundaries do not suffer the artificiality of its Arab neighbors. Even so, Irandoes possess a restless Kurdish population concentrated in the Azerbaijan province that could make a common cause with a Iraqi Kurdish state and agitate for autonomy.

A democratic process that is yielding a loose federal structure would presumably provide sufficient incentives for Kurds to remain within a unitary Iraq. Moreover, such an arrangement could provide the moderate Sunnis a voice in the deliberations of the state, causing them to eschew terror as an instrument of their aspirations.

Finally, stability—not chaos—would facilitate Iran’s remaining objective, the withdrawal of U.S. forces. Even Iran ’s firebrand president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has conceded that “the more this government [in Iraq ] is successful in establishing security, the weaker the foreigners’ reasons and pretext will be to continue their occupation.”

The notion that Iran would like the American forces bogged down and bleeding in Iraq as deterrence to a potential U.S. attack on its nuclear installations is flawed. The Islamic Republic’s quest to emerge as the leading power in the Gulf cannot be achieved so long as a large contingent of U.S. troops remain in Iraq, however preoccupied and beleaguered they may be.

So how and why is Iran infiltrating men and military supplies next door?

Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad, is right when he claims that Iran ’s model of operation in Iraqis drawn from its experience in Lebanon in the early 1980s. At that time, Iran amalgamated a variety of Shiite parties into the lethal and popular Hezbollah.

Since the removal of Saddam, Iran has been busy strengthening the Shiite forces by subsidizing their political activities and arming their militias. Iran hopes that the Shiites will continue to exploit their demographic advantage to solidify their gains. But should the political process fail, they must be sufficiently armed to win a civil war.

The trouble is that once munitions cross the border, it is hard for Iran to maintain operational control over them, and it is entirely plausible that some of these weapons have been used against U.S. personnel.

Should the United States transcend its recriminations, it would appreciate that it has many interests in common with Iran in Iraq. Both sides want a stable and cohesive Iraq, and a continuation of its democratic experiment.

U.S.diplomacy that acknowledges this would be better not just for Iran and Iraq, but also the United States.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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