Distinguishing Iraqis from Iranians can be hard. Iraq’s most revered cleric, Grand Ayatullah Husaini Sistani, speaks Arabic with a thick Persian accent. (Sistan-Baluchestan is the name of a province in southeastern Iran.) Meanwhile, across the border, Iran’s top judge, Ayatullah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, struggles with Persian, the residue of an Iraqi birth. Theological cross-pollination and political exile have created deep ties between the two Shi’ite communities—and that’s exactly what the U.S. is afraid of. In his speech last week announcing plans to send more than 20,000 additional troops to Iraq, President Bush warned that if the U.S. left, “Iran would be emboldened.” Hours later, U.S. troops raided an Iranian office in Iraq’s north. The thrust of Bush’s strategy now appears less to build democracy in Iraq than to prevent it from becoming a client state of Tehran.
The Administration should relax. Iraq poses big problems, but becoming Iran’s flunky probably isn’t one of them. There are three main reasons: Iraq’s Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds.
Sunni Iraqis have feared Persian domination since before there was an Iraq. That fear reached fever pitch after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Sunni politicians regularly call their Shi’ite rivals tools of Tehran. If Iraq’s Shi’ite leaders want the Sunnis to end their insurgency, they’ll have to seriously distance themselves from the mullahs next door. If they don’t, the Baghdad government will lack influence over large chunks of the country, since even with Iran’s help, Iraq’s Shi’ite militias won’t easily defeat a Sunni insurgency stocked with Saddam’s former officers and bankrolled by oil money from the gulf.