Thursday, May 31, 2007

Iran's Iraq Strategy, And Ours

It's already clear that the War in Iraq has been a boon to the shortterm strategic interests of our two most prominent adversaries in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, al-Qaeda and Iran. As for the former, its Iraqi operations aren't likely to outlast our presence over there by very long. All indications are that they have already begun to wear out their welcome. Even if they do manage to maintain some sort of staging area in the shadows of an eventual failed state, their goal of installing a fundamentalist Sunni theocracy in Shiite-dominated Iraq doesn't stand a snowball's chance in hell.

But what about Iran? Assuming that our rivalry with them will play a determinant role in regional geopolitics in the near future, and assuming that Iranian influence is essentially destabilizing and should be contained (both reasonable assumptions, in my opinion), their strategic goal in a post-occupation Iraq -- and Afghanistan -- is a question of vital importance. And yet, it's increasingly clear that it's a question that America's war planners don't have an answer for.

For good reason. The Iranian position in a post-occupation Iraq is far from certain. It's a mistake to assume that because Iraq is Shiite-dominated, Iran's influence is guaranteed. Of the two major Shiite blocks engaged in a power struggle verging on a civil war in the South, one of them, the Sadrists, are openly hostile to Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs. The other, SIIC (formerly SCIRI) while heavily supported by the Iranians, has increasingly begun to align itself with Ayatollah al-Sistani, the powerful Najaf cleric who also opposes Iranian interference.

Here's how Lt. Gen. Petraeus put it in an Army Times interview last week:

As to the Iranians’ strategic goal in Iraq, Petraeus said he isn’t sure whether the Iranians themselves know for certain.

“They have to be a tiny bit conflicted,” he said. “They can’t want a failed state. This is a Shi’a democracy [and] the first Arab Shi’a-run state. They can’t want it to fail, even though they are Persian. They certainly suffered greatly at the hands of Iraq. But with the kinship and the relationships they have with so many of the Iraqi leaders, they can’t want it to completely fail.”

On the other hand, as long as American troops remain in Iraq, ie. as long as Iraq remains exclusively our problem, Iran has a clear tactical interest in prolonging the violence. Again, Petraeus:

“They don’t want us to succeed, certainly,” he said. The Iranians would prefer that the U.S. be “seized” with the war in Iraq, perhaps to divert American attention from Iran’s nuclear ambitions or its activities in the northern Arabian Gulf, he added.

The same logic holds true true in Afghanistan. According to McClatchy, despite their quiet support of the invasion that rid them of their sworn enemies, the Taliban, as well as close ties with the Karzai government, the Iranians have recently begun funneling weapons to the Taliban insurgents in the southern province of Helmand:

Iran, they said, appears to be sending a warning that it can raise the cost to the United States and its allies in Afghanistan and elsewhere if the Bush administration continues pressing Iran to halt its suspected nuclear-weapons program and its support for Shiite militias in Iraq and radical groups in Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and elsewhere.

"They do want to bleed the United States and its allies," said a U.S. intelligence official who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "What you are seeing now is potentially only a small taste of what could be done."

Take away our presence, however, and Iran's tactical interests melt away, while its strategic dilemma becomes all too clear. Faced with the possibility of being surrounded by failed states on both sides, Iran would have little choice but to accept that for the time being, their regional interests actually converge with our own, ie. some sort of power-sharing arrangement in Iraq, and a strong central government in Afghanistan.

Just another example of how our presence in Iraq stands in the way of the goals we're trying to achieve there.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Iraq   

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