Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Iran Continues to Confound the US

With Afghanistan and Iraq vanquished, along with their stability, US attention has turned to Iran as enemy number one. Nevermind that North Korea actually possesses nuclear weapon capability, war must be perpetuated to prevent Iran from gaining even a sniff of such a disaster.

As noted before, the US loves to portray Iran as a purely destructive force in Iraq, funding only those militias the US isn't allied with, negotiating with only those the US doesn't want to know about. That stance is not only oversimplification, but demonstrably false.

In fact, the US and Iran occasionally find themselves on the same side of a fight, as was the case in Basra.

The causes of this convergence boil down to the logic of self-interest, although it is logic in a place where even the most basic reasoning refuses to go in a straight line. In essence, though, the calculation by the United States is that it must back the government it helped to create and take the steps needed to protect American troops and civilian officials.

Iranian motivations appear to hinge on the possibility that Mr. Sadr’s political and military followers could gain power in provincial elections this fall, and disrupt the creation of a semi autonomous region in the south that the Iranians see as beneficial.

An Iranian interest in a large Shiite swath across the region--from Iran to Lebanon--is not a secret, and the Mahdi army threatens that goal more than a US-allied Badr Brigade does, whether or not Admiral Mullen and President Bush want to admit it. Muqtada al Sadr is above all an Iraqi nationalist and one of the few Iraqi leaders who remained in Iraq throughout Saddam Hussein's rule. al Sadr would be as opposed to the subjugation of Iraq to Iran as the US.

Of course, this is not to suggest that he won't accept any free funding Iran wants to send his way, or that his idea of an independent Iraq merges at any point with the United States' idea.

But, with provincial elections coming in October, it is in Iran's interest to see as many members of the ISCI, of which the Badr Brigade is part, elected in lieu of members of Sadr's political faction as possible.

When it comes to which Shiite leader Iran and the United States want to see in power, at least for now they largely see Mr. Sadr’s ascendance as a common threat — nowhere more so than in Basra, the oil-rich capital of Iraq’s most populous region, the Shiite south.

Fred Kaplan at Slate:

It is now clear that the Badr Organization's ties to Iran are not merely as close as Sadr's; they are much closer. In fact, as the Times reports, Iran's ambassador to Iraq, Hassan Kazemi Qumi, expressed full support for Maliki's offensive in Basra and denounced Sadr's fighters as "outlaws."

Why Iran would support an offensive portrayed in the US as a fight against both al Sadr and Iran is less vague to anyone keeping realistic tabs on foreign affairs independent of the tale spun by the Bush administration.

...in the end the geopolitical calculus of the United States and Iran has to do with what kind of Shiite government they want in control.

The party that Iran and the United States are backing, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq [ISCI], is a bitter rival of Mr. Sadr’s political movement and has managed to play to the interests of both countries. Under Iraq’s Constitution, provinces can form regions with considerable independence from Baghdad. The Supreme Council advocates a large, semi autonomous region in the south, similar to Kurdistan in the north, made up of the nine southern provinces. And because many of the council’s leaders lived in exile in Iran during the rule of Saddam Hussein, Iran has political ties to the group.

Coupled with Iran’s shared Shiite heritage, such a region would amplify Iran’s influence over the oil-rich area.

The recent crack-down on the Mahdi Army and the upcoming provincial elections cannot be divorced in any realistic assessment of the political environment of Iraq:

During the elections in 2005, Mr. Sadr’s supporters did not vote in most southern provinces, so despite having grass-roots support they were not represented in local governments.

But the Supreme Council encouraged its followers to go to the polls, and they dominated even in places where their supporters made up a comparatively small percentage of the electorate. If Mr. Sadr’s movement participates in the next elections, scheduled for October, they are sure to fare better than they did when they did not field candidates, and the Supreme Council is likely to lose some of its power.

All this illustrates that the battle of southern Iraq is more an intra-Shiite power play, with the ISCI reluctant to give up any of its influence, than a simplified battle of good versus evil.

Control of the southern region brings with it control of Iraqi oil. So, in effect, by backing the ISCI the US is placing a Iranian-allied Shiite political party in essentially-autonomous control of Iraq's oil-exporting functions. As far as geopolitical strife is responsible for a good portion of oil prices, the situation being fostered in Basra and the surrounding region cannot help.

With Iranian-backed Hezbollah exerting its influence in Lebanon, the Iranian-backed ISCI exerting control over southern Iraq--and Iranian-friendly Syria in between--it becomes exceedingly clear that the US invasion of Iraq was the greatest strategic windfall to befall Iran in decades.

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