Friday, April 11, 2008

Fences Make Good Neighbors

One of the prevailing themes to this week's Capitol Hill testimony of General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker was an increase in rhetoric bemoaning the influence of Iran in the Iraqi occupation. While I don't see any chance Bush gets away with starting an active conflict with Iran in the next nine months, nothing will prevent him from escalating the verbal conflict.

That said, in the theatrical framework we've become accustomed to in hearings such as the ones held this week, Iran in the abstract can be bandied about as nemesis without any real exploration into just what that influence entails. Or, for that matter, how it is that hundreds of people all started saying 'special groups' on the same day. Was 'freedom haters' taken? I didn't get the memo.

That Iran wants to increase its influence in the region can pretty much be accepted without argument. It's how the Shiite theocracy is going about it that seems to be a source of confusion for some.

There seems, among supporters of prolonged occupation, a belief that the only way for Iran to garner influence in its neighbor to the West is by funding Shiite militias. Well, scratch that. Shiite militias who object to the American presence. That Iran provides assistance and support to all of the various Shiite militias--whether they are allied with the Maliki government or not--seems a fact either too cumbersome or too incongruent with the reigning narrative to lend much credence to.

To believe that, though, one must be of the assumption that Iran, having surveyed the landscape, has decided that the best way to ensconce itself in the Iraqi reality is to ally itself most closely with the Shiite militias opposed to the government, choosing them over those militias allied with al Maliki. Common sense dictates that logic is somewhat backward.

Iran has plenty of access to the Iraqi government itself. Why, then, would a distraction of resources among less-productive alliances be beneficial? While Iran is no doubt aiding al Sadr, there is no reason to believe that this is done to the exclusion of relationships with other, better-connected groups.

Consider this CBS News report from Christmas, 2006:

U.S. troops in Iraq detained at least two Iranians and released two others who had diplomatic immunity in an exercise the White House says may support its charge that Iran is helping fuel the insurgency there.

Two of those detained were visiting as guests of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani
, his spokesman said.

"We suspect this event validates our claims about Iranian meddling, but we want to finish our investigation of the detained Iranians before characterizing their activities," White House spokesman Alex Conant said Monday.


The New York Times reported Monday that U.S. forces were holding four Iranians, including some seized at the compound of Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the largest Shiite bloc in Iraq's parliament, who met with President Bush earlier this month at the White House.[...]

Hakim is not only one of Iraq's leading Shiites,...he is often thought of as an alternative to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki if al-Maliki proves unable to control the violence.

Okay, so it proves the contention that Iran is meddling, but in this case as a guest of the President. Or the leader of the ISCI. Both of which are presumed American allies, not a nefarious splinter group or marginalized radical. This is not to point to an exclusion of that influence, but rather to illustrate the existence aid to US allies as well.

It is beyond doubt at this point that the seminal event in the expansion of Iranian influence in the region was the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime. Saddam was just as much a thorn in the side of the Iranians as he was to the US, a check on their power and a geographical buffer between Syria and Iran. With Hussein out of the way, the US virtually guaranteed a Shiite-led government sympathetic to the Iranians and paved the way for a Shiite swath across the midsection of the Middle East.

Clearly there is a crossing of signals between US policy makers and the leadership of Iraq. John McCain recently said that a 'successful' Iraq would be an 'enemy of Iran.' This thought process offers so little in the way of reason it's astounding. First, for a struggling, inefficient, and weak nation such as Iraq to start making enemies with its neighbor right out of the gate would be ludicrous and suicidal. Second, the Iraqi and Iranian leadership are natural allies. Most of the current leaders of Iraq spent their time in exile under Saddam in Iran. That the Iraqi leadership doesn't acquire the US animosity toward Iran simply as quid pro quo for greasing the tracks to their positions of authority is no surprise, nor should such a relationship be expected.

Remarking at Ahmadinejad's March 2 visit:

"I think that the level of trust is very high," Maliki said. "And I say frankly that the position Iran has taken recently was very helpful in bringing back security and stability."

Again, this argument speaks not to Iran as a constructive player on the world stage, only the relationship between the neighboring countries.

The New American:

Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived in Baghdad on March 2 on an historic trip to Iraq, the first ever for an Iranian president. Iraq’s political and religious leaders greeted him with great fanfare, laying out red carpets and having military bands play for him. Iraq’s President Jalal Talabani fondly asked Ahmadinejad to call him “Uncle Jalal.”

Ahmadinejad also held meetings with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, and Shiite religious leader Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, chairman of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council.

Perhaps nothing exemplifies the myriad allegiances of Iran more than the al Hakim-led ISCI and its military arm, the Badr Brigade.


The Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), a Shi'i resistance group also known as the Supreme Assembly of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SAIRI), was formed in Iran in 1982 to provide an opposition to Iraqi aggression against Iran. Following the Iran-Iraq war, the organization continued to operate with the aim of toppling the regime of Saddam Hussein. SCIRI was directly supported with funds by Tehran and with arms by Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard. The movement advocated theocratic rule for Iraq and conducted a low-level, cross-border guerrilla war against the regime of Saddam Hussein.

Absent Saddam, ISCI was in a position for a slight makeover, as this Reuters article explains. Aside from dropping the 'Revolution' part of its name, ISCI also aligned itself more visibly with Iraq and Grand Ayatollah al Sistani. But, as the article states, as of May 2007 "the group [got] its guidance from the religious establishment of Welayat al Faqih, led by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Iran."

The reason behind the change is not difficult to discern. Surely, it is less an attempt to side-step Iran and more a strategic maneuver borne of an accurate perception that allying themselves with the Iraqis and the Americans would put them in a much better position to obtain further power. It's a relationship of convenience more than an altruistic change of heart.

Consider the influence the ISCI has already gained in light of its archrival Muqtada al Sadr's political party's increasingly marginalized position within the political sphere.

Peter Galbraith
for Salon:

At the same time, L. Paul Bremer's CPA appointed party officials from the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) to be governors and serve on governorate councils throughout southern Iraq. SCIRI, recently renamed the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), was founded at the Ayatollah Khomeini's direction in Tehran in 1982. The Badr Organization is the militia associated with SCIRI.

In the January 2005 elections, SCIRI became the most important component of Iraq's ruling Shiite coalition. In exchange for not taking the prime minister's slot, SCIRI won the right to name key ministers, including the minister of the interior. From that ministry, SCIRI placed Badr militiamen throughout Iraq's national police.

In short, George W. Bush had from the first facilitated the very event he warned would be a disastrous consequence of a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq: the takeover of a large part of the country by an Iranian-backed militia.

Indeed, despite having told the Sunni Awakening Councils that there wasn't room for them in the Iraqi Security Forces, 10,000 Badr militia men were inducted into the ISF after the recent fighting in Basra. This is the same organization that until a year ago was not shy about its origins in--and continued ties with--Iran.

Just today, Dick Cheney raised the specter of al Qaeda control of Iraqi oil reserves upon a US withdrawal. But reality suggests Iran is already in a significantly better position to do just that. Basra contains 70 percent of the Iraqi oil reserves, and that town is solidly in the hands of Iranian-backed Shiite militias.


Since 2005, Iraq's Shiite-led government has concluded numerous economic, political and military agreements with Iran. The most important would link the two countries' strategic oil reserves by building a pipeline from southern Iraq to Iran, while another commits Iran to providing extensive military assistance to the Iraqi government. According to a senior official in Iraq's Oil Ministry, smugglers divert at least 150,000 barrels of Iraq's daily oil exports through Iran, a figure that approaches 10 percent of Iraq's production.

Given the complex political scene that is Iraq, any over simplification is sure to fall short of the mark. But to insist without a hint of uncertainty that Iran is backing the opponents of the US-backed Maliki government to the exclusion of all other elements is foolish.

Iran most certainly desires significant influence in Iraq, and it undoubtedly has a pipeline toward that end. That path leads through ISCI and Da'awa, though, not al Sadr. Why would Iran put all its force behind pushing al Sadr alone, when it can ride the coattails of the US-allied government and its surrogates all the way to the top?

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