A week of thrust and parry over Iraq culminated in a prime-time September 13 presidential address (IHT) the White House hoped would reframe the war debate, link the U.S. presence to Iran’s growing power, and buy time for U.S. and Iraqi troops to stabilize Iraq. President Bush announced 5,700 troops that comprised part of the “surge” will leave Iraq by December 2007, and promised more of the thirty thousand soldiers dispatched under urgent conditions last spring would cycle home as conditions on the ground improve. Yet he made no mention of a withdrawal of the core force of some 130,000 troops. Some Republican lawmakers, many facing reelection next year, expressed concern (WashPost) over the modest scale of the reduction.
These tactical moves came alongside a new and clearer statement of strategic intent: a vision of an “enduring” U.S. presence in Iraq meant to counter the nuclear and political ambitions of Iran. In four-and-a-half years of war, stated U.S. aims in Iraq have been a moving target (NYT). In 2003, as U.S. forces were unleashing “shock and awe” on Baghdad, the White House was promising to stand down after cleansing Iraq of weapons of mass destruction. The absence of weapons of mass destruction led to a new emphasis on democratizing Iraq and training Iraqi security forces. Iraq’s weak government and factional mayhem brought the surge, and now, with the military’s figures showing violence trending downward, the strategic goal has shifted to containment, both of non-state actors like al-Qaeda and Iraq’s sectarian militias, and of Iranian influence. “If we were to be driven out of Iraq... Iran would benefit from the chaos and would be encouraged in its efforts to gain nuclear weapons and dominate the region,” Bush said. “A free Iraq will counter the destructive ambitions of Iran.”
That wasn’t always the case. CFR Adjunct Senior Fellow Vali R. Nasr writes in Military Review that regional Shiite leaders, including religious figureheads in Iran, were initially supportive (PDF) of U.S. intervention in Iraq. They viewed removal of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated Baath Party as an opportunity to create “stable relations” between the United States and Shiite populations in the region. But in 2006, sectarian violence—culminating with the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarrah—sparked retaliation. Calls for calm from Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani were ignored, and violence erupted.
The ratcheting of rhetoric toward Iran, building for months, reached a climax the week of September 10. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to the country, each singled out Iran as a primary source of instability in Iraq. In a new benchmark report, President Bush reiterated Iran’s destabilizing influence. And the Pentagon announced plans for a base (WSJ) on the Iraq-Iran border, aimed at stemming the flow of Iranian weapons and fighters. Iran, the world’s largest Shiite country, denies involvement and accuses (PressTV) the United States of arming Sunni groups to overthrow Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government. Ali Aldabbagh, a spokesman for the Iraqi government, said during a briefing with reporters that Iran is meddling in Iraq.
How the war of words will play out is unclear. Most experts doubt the United States will launch a unilateral strike on Tehran, but acknowledge such an action would be the worst-case scenario. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said the world should be prepared for the possibility of war (EU Observer) if Iran obtains nuclear weapons. The chief UN nuclear inspector, Mohamed ElBaradei, dismissed the warning (AP) as "hype." As this Backgrounder explains, U.S. intelligence on Iran’s involvement in Iraq, not to mention its uranium-enrichment program, is incomplete. Nonetheless, CFR President Richard N. Haass says the U.S. strategy of bolstering Sunni tribes in the middle of the country will create a regional axis aimed at “pushing back against Iran and its proxies.” CFR Senior Fellow Max Boot says that’s a good goal, because a U.S. withdrawal would increase Iran’s influence in the region. “The alternative—a victory for Iran and al-Qaeda—would be nothing short of catastrophic,” Boot says.