In his continuing effort to bolster support for the Iraq war, President Bush traveled to Reno, Nevada, on August 28 to speak to the annual convention of the American Legion. He emphatically warned of the Iranian threat should the United States withdraw from Iraq. Said the President, “For all those who ask whether the fight in Iraq is worth it, imagine an Iraq where militia groups backed by Iran control large parts of the country.”
On the same day, in the southern Iraqi city of Karbala, the Mahdi Army, a militia loyal to the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, battled government security forces around the shrine of Imam Hussein, one of Shiite Islam’s holiest places. A million pilgrims were in the city and fifty-one died.
The US did not directly intervene, but American jets flew overhead in support of the government security forces. As elsewhere in the south, those Iraqi forces are dominated by the Badr Organization, a militia founded, trained, armed, and financed by Iran. When US forces ousted Saddam’s regime from the south in early April 2003, the Badr Organization infiltrated from Iran to fill the void left by the Bush administration’s failure to plan for security and governance in post-invasion Iraq.
In the months that followed, the US-run Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) appointed Badr Organization leaders to key positions in Iraq’s American-created army and police. 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 US withdrawal from Iraq: the takeover of a large part of the country by an Iranian-backed militia. And while the President contrasts the promise of democracy in Iraq with the tyranny in Iran, there is now substantially more personal freedom in Iran than in southern Iraq.
Iran’s role in Iraq is pervasive, but also subtle. When Iraq drafted its permanent constitution in 2005, the American ambassador energetically engaged in all parts of the process. But behind the scenes, the Iranian ambassador intervened to block provisions that Tehran did not like. As it happened, both the Americans and the Iranians wanted to strengthen Iraq’s central government. While the Bush administration clung to the mirage of a single Iraqi people, Tehran worked to give its proxies, the pro-Iranian Iraqis it supported—by then established as the government of Iraq—as much power as possible. (Thanks to Kurdish obstinacy, neither the US nor Iran succeeded in its goal, but even now both the US and Iran want to see the central government strengthened.)
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. Iran has yet to provide the military support it promised to the Iraqi army. With the US supplying 160,000 troops and hundreds of billions of dollars to support a pro-Iranian Iraqi government, Iran has no reason to invest its own resources.
Of all the unintended consequences of the Iraq war, Iran’s strategic victory is the most far-reaching. In establishing the border between the Ottoman Empire and the Persian Empire in 1639, the Treaty of Qasr-i-Shirin demarcated the boundary between Sunni-ruled lands and Shiite-ruled lands. For eight years of brutal warfare in the 1980s, Iran tried to breach that line but could not. (At the time, the Reagan administration supported Saddam Hussein precisely because it feared the strategic consequences of an Iraq dominated by Iran’s allies.) The 2003 US invasion of Iraq accomplished what Khomeini’s army could not. Today, the Shiite-controlled lands extend to the borders of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Bahrain, a Persian Gulf kingdom with a Shiite majority and a Sunni monarch, is most affected by these developments; but so is Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, which is home to most of the kingdom’s Shiites. (They may even be a majority in the province but this is unknown as Saudi Arabia has not dared to conduct a census.) The US Navy has its most important Persian Gulf base in Bahrain while most of Saudi Arabia’s oil is under the Eastern Province.
America’s Iraq quagmire has given new life to Iran’s Syrian ally, Bashir Assad. In 2003, the Syrian Baathist regime seemed an anachronism unable to survive the region’s political and economic changes. Today, Assad appears firmly in control, having even recovered from the opprobrium of having his regime caught red-handed in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. In Lebanon, Hezbollah enjoys greatly enhanced stature for having held off the Israelis in the 2006 war. As Hezbollah’s sponsor and source of arms, Iran now has an influence both in the Levant and in the Arab–Israeli conflict that it never before had.
The scale of the American miscalculation is striking. Before the Iraq war began, its neoconservative architects argued that conferring power on Iraq’s Shiites would serve to undermine Iran because Iraq’s Shiites, controlling the faith’s two holiest cities, would, in the words of then Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, be “an independent source of authority for the Shia religion emerging in a country that is democratic and pro-Western.” Further, they argued, Iran could never dominate Iraq, because the Iraqi Shiites are Arabs and the Iranian Shiites Persian. It was a theory that, unfortunately, had no connection to reality.
Iran’s bond with the Iraqi Shiites goes far beyond the support Iran gave Shiite leaders in their struggle with Saddam Hussein. Decades of oppression have made their religious identity more important to Iraqi Shiites than their Arab ethnic identity. (Also, many Iraqi Shiites have Turcoman, Persian, or Kurdish ancestors.) While Sunnis identify with the Arab world, Iraqi Shiites identify with the Shiite world, and for many this means Iran.
There is also the legacy of February 15, 1991, when President George H.W. Bush called on the Iraqi people to rise up against Saddam Hussein. Two weeks later, the Shiites in southern Iraq did just that. When Saddam’s Republican Guards moved south to crush the rebellion, President Bush went fishing and no help was given. Only Iran showed sympathy. Hundreds of thousands died and no Iraqi Shiite I know thinks this failure of US support was anything but intentional. In assessing the loyalty of the Iraqi Shiites before the war, the war’s architects often stressed how Iraqi Shiite conscripts fought loyally for Iraq in the Iran–Iraq War. They never mentioned the 1991 betrayal. This was understandable: at the end of the 1991 war, Wolfowitz was the number-three man at the Pentagon, Dick Cheney was the defense secretary, and, of course, Bush’s father was the president.
Iran and its Iraqi allies control, respectively, the Middle East’s third- and second-largest oil reserves. Iran’s influence now extends to the borders of the Saudi province that holds the world’s largest oil reserves. President Bush has responded to these strategic changes wrought by his own policies by strongly supporting a pro-Iranian government in Baghdad and by arming and training the most pro-Iranian elements in the Iraqi military and police.
Beginning with his 2002 State of the Union speech, President Bush has articulated two main US goals for Iran: (1) the replacement of Iran’s theocratic regime with a liberal democracy, and (2) preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Since events in Iraq took a bad turn, he has added a third objective: gaining Iranian cooperation in Iraq.
The administration’s track record is not impressive. The prospects for liberal democracy in Iran took a severe blow when reform-minded President Mohammad Khatami was replaced by the hard-line—and somewhat erratic—Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in August 2005. (Khatami had won two landslide elections which were a vote to soften the ruling theocracy; he was then prevented by the conservative clerics from accomplishing much.) At the time President Bush first proclaimed his intention to keep nuclear weapons out of Iranian hands, Iran had no means of making fissile material. Since then, however, Iran has defied the IAEA and the UN Security Council to assemble and use the centrifuges needed to enrich uranium. In Iraq, the administration accuses Iran of supplying particularly potent roadside bombs to Shiite militias and Sunni insurgents.
To coerce Iran into ceasing its uranium enrichment program, the Bush administration has relied on UN sanctions, the efforts of a European negotiating team, and stern presidential warnings. The mismanaged Iraq war has undercut all these efforts. After seeing the US go to the United Nations with allegedly irrefutable evidence that Iraq possessed chemical and biological weapons and had a covert nuclear program, foreign governments and publics are understandably skeptical about the veracity of Bush administration statements on Iran. The Iraq experience makes many countries reluctant to support meaningful sanctions not only because they doubt administration statements but because they are afraid President Bush will interpret any Security Council resolution condemning Iran as an authorization for war.
With so much of the US military tied up in Iraq, the Iranians do not believe the US has the resources to attack them and then deal with the consequences. They know that a US attack on Iran would have little support in the US—it is doubtful that Congress would authorize it—and none internationally. Not even the British would go along with a military strike on Iran. President Bush’s warnings count for little with Tehran because he now has a long record of tough language unmatched by action. As long as the Iranians believe the United States has no military option, they have limited incentives to reach an agreement, especially with the Europeans.
The administration’s efforts to change Iran’s regime have been feeble or feckless. President Bush’s freedom rhetoric is supported by Radio Farda, a US-sponsored Persian language radio station, and a $75 million appropriation to finance Iranian opposition activities including satellite broadcasts by Los Angeles–based exiles. If only regime change was so easily accomplished!
The identity of Iranian recipients of US funding is secret but the administration’s neoconservative allies have loudly promoted US military and financial support for Iranian opposition groups as diverse as the son of the late Shah, Iranian Kurdish separatists, and the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK), which is on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations. Some of the Los Angeles exiles now being funded are associated with the son of the Shah but it is unlikely that either the MEK or the Kurdish separatists would receive any of the $75 million. US secrecy—and that the administration treats the MEK differently from other terrorist organizations—has roused Iranian suspicions that the US is supporting these groups either through the democracy program or a separate covert action.