Will Iran Win the Iraq War?
(Published in The Wall Street Journal. From the December 14, 2004)
Today in Washington there are many within the foreign-policy establishment expressing their fear--and hope--that America's entanglement in Iraq may well compromise the Bush administration's ability to confront the Islamic Republic's quest for nuclear weapons. If it chose to, Tehran--so the theory goes--could make life enormously difficult for the U.S. in Iraq through its clandestine networks and Shiite allies. The U.S. simply cannot entertain the possibility of pre-emptively striking clerical Iran's nuclear-weapons facilities for fear of producing a two-front, hopeless mess in Iraq, where the Shiites have so far overwhelming refused to join the Sunni insurgency. The administration needs thus to become more 'realist' and 'pragmatic' in its approach to the clerical regime, and follow the European lead in using commercial carrots to alter clerical Iran's nuclear behavior.
But does this reasoning make sense? Are Iraq and Iran so intertwined that America is essentially handcuffed in its dealings with Tehran's mullahs? In all probability, not at all. Indeed, the current interplay between the peoples of Iraq and its eastern neighbor actually ought to encourage the Bush administration to be more hawkish toward the clerical regime's growing interference in Iraq and pursuit of nuclear weapons.
The strongest trump playing in favor of America and against Iran is Iraqi nationalism. Nationalism is easily the most successful European export to the Middle East, rearranging, subordinating, and sometimes eliminating older ties of faith, family and tribe. Iraq's Shiites are the progenitors of modern Iraqi nationalism. They, much more than their Sunni Arab compatriots, who were the driving force behind pan-Arabism in Mesopotamia, have shaped an Iraqi Arab identity which is distinct from the Sunni Arabs to the west and Shiite Iranians to the east.
Iraqi Shiites, especially their clergy, do have a long relationship with Iran. Traditionally, the most promising Iranian religious students and clerics have studied at the seminaries of Najaf and Karbala to perfect their knowledge of Arabic and their exegesis of religious texts. Clerical Iraqi and Iranian families have often intermarried--though there is much less intermarriage now than there was in the early 20th century before highly nationalist dictatorships in both countries started forming contemporary identities. Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's pre-eminent divine, is of Persian birth and early education. Many of his closest, oldest advisers are also of Iranian ancestry and education. Iraq's once-great Shiite merchant families inevitably have Iranian members. As was once typical of the cosmopolitan, Westernized Shiite merchant class, the Iraqi National Congress's Ahmed Chalabi, a product of an Iraqi-Persian family, doesn't recoil from Iranian mullahs, as do most upper-class Sunni Baghdadis.
But association among the Shia should never be viewed as ideological sympathy. The Iraqi Shia retain enormous bitterness toward the U.S. for the failure of President George H.W. Bush to aid them during the great rebellion of '91, when the Shiites and Kurds rose up against Saddam Hussein after the first Gulf War. Tens of thousands of Shiites were slaughtered. But this bitterness also extends to Iran's clerical regime, which did virtually nothing to help their Iraqi 'brethren.'
There has been a sentiment among many Iraqi Shiites--and it never has been much more than sentiment even among the most devoutly religious--that Iran is supposed to look after the Iraqi Shia, to help them in times of trouble as would an uncle. The Iran-Iraq war from 1980 to 1988 frayed, if not ended, this sentiment. Rare are the instances of Iraqi Shiite protests at Saddam's war with Iran. The Baathist Orwellian tyranny had much to do with this, but there is also the undeniable truth that neither Shiite party really wanted to bleed for the other. Nationalism and modern Arabism had become the biggest parts of the Iraqi Shiite identity.
And Iranians usually don't waste much time expressing their disappointment in the Iraqi Shia, given the damage the war did to Iran, that Iraq's army was majority Shiite, and that Saddam's elite Sunni Republican Guards were on several occasions near the cracking point. When the Iraqi Shia felt Saddam's wrath in '91, there was more than a little schadenfreude on the Persian side. The truth be told, Tehran's clerical regime didn't mind the status quo in Iraq in the '90s: a weakened Saddam that couldn't invade Iran but could keep Iraq's Shiite community, especially its clergy, quiescent and uncompetitive with the Islamic Republic.
Which brings us to the Jan. 30 elections in Iraq. Clerical Iran's primary objective is to ensure that Iraq remains destabilized, incapable of coalescing around a democratically elected government. Such a government supported by Iraq's Shiite establishment is a dagger aimed at Tehran's clerical dictatorship. Intra-Shiite squabbles do matter, and this one between Iraqi clerics who believe in one man, one vote and those who believe in theocracy is an enormous difference of opinion. We should not be fooled by the publicly cordial relations that usually exist between clerics of Najaf and Tehran. Najaf's position on democracy is an explicit negation of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's and his associates' right to rule Iran.
The clerical regime is currently handcuffed to Iraq's democratic process and timetable. All of the principal groups through which Iran hopes to exercise influence in Iraq--the Iranian-created Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the Dawa (or 'Islamic Call') party, and the Sadriyyin, followers of Muqtada al Sadr, the young clerical firebrand who has been engaged in a spiritual tug-of-war with the country's traditional clergy--are committed now to the election process. Iran has probably been pouring money into Iraq, to all three of these Shiite groups, which don't share much affection for each other, and in the case of the Dawa and the Sadriyyin, have had distinctly mixed, often hostile, emotions about things Iranian. Both the Dawa and the Sadriyyin have regularly belittled Grand Ayatollah Sistani for his 'Persianness' and snarled at clerical Iran's habit of talking down to the Iraqi Shia.
Tehran's motivation in giving aid to these parties is to encourage some dependency and, more important, keep the three most provocative Shiite groups in the forefront of Iraqi politics. Some of the Dawa rank and file and the young, streetwise men behind Sadr are, like the Baath Party that made them, explosively violent, easily as tough and potentially as fierce as the Baathists and Sunni militants who are so doggedly trying to shred civil society and unleash sectarian conflict.
Iraq's Sunni minority is anxious about the creation of a Shiite-led country, which is unavoidable if Iraq goes democratic. The Shia who scare the Sunni Arabs the most are SCIRI, the Dawa and the Sadriyyin. All three groups convey to Sunni Arabs, and to the Sunni Kurds, a certain Shiite intensity. Though all three have been remarkably well-behaved toward their Arab Sunni compatriots--given how many Arab Sunnis were complicit in barbaric behavior toward the Shia, the number of revenge killings has been astonishingly small--the three probably seem to Arab Sunnis as the Shia least likely to forgive them for their Baathist guilt.
Iranian support for these groups increases the odds for implanting in Iraq sectarian politics and conflict. What clerical Iran ideally wants to see next door is strife that can produce an Iraqi Hezbollah. The Sadriyyin are philosophically closest to the Lebanese Hezbollah, but they aren't in ideology, organization, or loyalty to Tehran, nearly as 'evolved.' The birth of the Lebanese Hezbollah, which Iran's ruling mullahs view as their greatest--only--foreign success, required a civil war and an Israeli invasion. In Iraq, Iran's ruling clerics have an American invasion. What they lack is civil war.
Tehran is trying to align itself with a variety of often contradictory parties because it cannot overtly oppose the democratic process in Iraq, in which an increasing number of Iraqi Shiites are passionately invested. Like Washington, Tehran really doesn't know what is going to happen on Jan. 30 and after, though it no doubt hopes that Sunni Arabs abstain from voting en masse, thereby supercharging sectarianism. If a civil war could be provoked, Iraq's democratic experiment and moderate Shiite religious establishment would probably both collapse. If the neighboring one-man, one-vote clerics can be downed and America can be physically and spiritually drained in Iraq, then the two most feared, disruptive forces in Iranian politics--Western-oriented Iranian youth and pro-democracy dissident clerics--can be further weakened. The more the Americans bleed next door, and the clerical regime definitely believes America is on the run in Iraq, the less likely they'll have the will to take out Iran's nuclear program.
In Iraq, the U.S. ought to have two obvious goals. To crush the Sunni insurgency before it can provoke the birth of an exclusive, angry Shiite political identity willing to do to the Arab Sunnis what the Baath once did to the Shia. If such an identity is born, it is most unlikely democracy can prevail. Washington must thus ensure that the democratic process in Iraq, regardless of the violence, keeps on rolling. As long as it does, clerical Iran will not be able to gain much traction inside the country. SCIRI, the Dawa and the Sadriyyin are not puppets controlled by Tehran; the rising power of southern Iraq's Shiite tribes, which historically have looked askance at clerical direction from any quarter, will further frustrate Iranian influence.
Persians stick out in Iraq like sore thumbs (very few Iranians can speak Arabic with any facility). They must have Iraqi surrogates to advance their interests, which are in opposition to those of most Iraqis. The U.S. could bomb uranium-enrichment facilities in Iran and it's much more likely Washington will see protests in the anti-Shiite Sunni Arab world than among Iraq's Shiites. This is a paradox that Washington should understand. If we don't, a nuclear-armed Iranian theocracy is likely to win in Iraq, and beyond.
*Reuel Marc Gerecht is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.