Iran's Growing Sway in Iraq Defies Neocons' Logic

Anyone who still believes that the U.S. neoconservatives who led the drive to war in Iraq are diabolically clever geo-strategic masterminds should now consider Iran’s vastly improved position vis-à-vis its U.S.-occupied neighbor.

Not only did Washington knock off Tehran’s arch-foe, Saddam Hussein, as well as the anti-Iranian Taliban in Afghanistan, but, with this week’s completion of a new constitution that would guarantee a weak central government and substantial autonomy to much of the Shi’ite south, it also appears that Iran’s influence in Iraq – already on the rise after last spring’s inauguration of a pro-Iranian interim government – is set to grow further.

“The new constitution will strengthen the hand of the provincial forces in the South, which are pro-Iranian,” according to University of Michigan Iraq expert Juan Cole, who notes that the state structure authorized by the draft charter would amount more to a confederation than a federal system.

Moreover, Cole told IPS, the constitutional ban on any law that contravenes Islamic law will likely give Shi’ite clerics significant power over the state, moving Iraq much closer to the Iranian model.

“While there’s no clerical dictator at the head of government as in Iran, if you had five ayatollahs on the Supreme Court who were striking down laws because they contravened Islam, that’s pretty close to the Iranian system,” he said.

In a recent colloquium for The Nation magazine, Shibley Telhami, a Middle East specialist at the Brookings Institution, noted that, “No one in Washington would have imagined that with all the human and financial costs of the war, the United States would find itself supporting a government … [with] close ties to Iran and that would conclude a military agreement with Tehran for the training of Iraq forces, even as nearly 140,000 U.S. troops remained on Iraq soil.”

This indeed was not how it was supposed to turn out for neoconservatives, who had argued that the gratitude of Iraqis for their “liberation” from Saddam would result in the installation of a secular, pro-Western government that would permit its territory to be used for U.S. military bases as yet another pressure point – or possible launching pad – against an increasingly beleaguered and unpopular Islamic Republic (and Syria, too) next door.

When U.S. troops, however, were not in fact greeted in Iraq with the “flowers and sweets” that they predicted, and an unexpected Sunni insurgency began to seriously challenge the occupation, neoconservatives were unfazed.

By empowering the majority Shi’ites through elections, they argued, the United States would create a democratic model that would prove irresistible for the increasingly disillusioned Iranian masses who – with political and possibly paramilitary support from the United States – would rise up and overthrow the theocracy.

“Such a government supported by Iraq’s Shi’ite establishment is a dagger aimed at Tehran’s clerical dictatorship,” argued the neoconservatives’ top Iran expert, Reuel Marc Gerecht of the American Enterprise Institute, in a Wall Street Journal column last December before the Jan. 30 elections brought to power the Jaafari government.

But while Gerecht was confidently predicting that a Shia government in Baghdad and Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Najaf would ring the death knell of the mullahs in Tehran, other analysts saw an altogether different scenario.

“The real long-term geopolitical winner of the ‘War on Terror’ could be Iran,” concluded a September 2004 report by the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Britain’s most influential foreign policy think tank.

“The Iranians have so much control over what happens in Iraq,” one of the authors, Gareth Stansfield, told USA Today at the time. “The United States is only beginning to realize this.”

Contrary to Gerecht’s predictions, that influence, if not control, has only strengthened since the January elections, which were won by the Shi’ite coalition headed by Ibrahim’s Da’wa party and, most especially, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). In addition to getting the most votes in the federal election, it swept nine out of the 11 provinces, including Baghdad province, where there are substantial Shi’ite populations.

“In 1982, Ayatollah Khomeini created [SCIRI], whose members included Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the current SCIRI leader, and al-Jaafari, Iraq’s current prime minister,” Cole told The Nation’s colloquium. “Khomeini dreamed of putting them in power in Baghdad. Bush and [Pentagon chief Donald] Rumsfeld have fulfilled that dream.”

Since coming to power, these officials broke entirely with the frosty relationship with Iran carried out by the government of transitional prime minister Iyad Allawi, and initiated what could only be described as warm, if not, fraternal relations with the Islamic Republic.

Accords were struck between the two countries covering military aid and cooperation, major infrastructure projects, including the construction of an oil pipeline that will send Iraqi oil to Iran for refining and an airport in the holy city of Najaf for Iranian pilgrims, and other aid programs, including schools, medical clinics, and mosques.

Last month’s three-day visit by Jaafari to Tehran, where he was warmly received by Iran’s top leaders, including its new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was capped by a reverential pilgrimage to the tomb of Khomeini himself in a gesture that could not have been interpreted as a good sign, even by Gerecht and other neoconservatives

“It was a love-fest,” according to Cole.

And, as noted by a senior U.S. diplomat in the Wall Street Journal last week, the recent audience with Sistani granted to Iran’s outgoing foreign minister, Kamal Kharazi, “didn’t exactly please us,” particularly because the ayatollah, widely considered the single most influential leader in Iraq today, has refused to meet with any U.S. official since the invasion.

Meanwhile, Iranian intelligence is reported to have so thoroughly penetrated Iraq’s security forces and militias – many of whose members were trained by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard – that the U.S. military has restricted its own intelligence-sharing practices with its Iraqi charges, according to officials here.

Indeed, as acknowledged by Gerecht himself, many of the Iraqi government’s leaders had lived for years, in some cases decades, in Iran and been supported there by the government. Even Jalal Talabani, the Kurdish president in the government, was dependent to a great extent on Iranian support during Saddam’s reign.

While Cole does not entirely discount Gerecht’s thesis that a Shi’ite-led government in Baghdad operating under the influence of Sistani’s quietest views of Islam’s relationship to the state could eventually act as a counter-model to Tehran and thus undermine support for the clerical regime, the Iranians, who have shown a growing willingness to confront the U.S. since January’s elections, can thank the neoconservatives for their good fortune so far.

August 27, 2005