As US and Iranian diplomats met in Baghdad Tuesday
for a second round of talks on Iraq, the domestic US political climate appears
decidedly more supportive of an aggressive US posture toward Iran than just
a few months ago, reflecting the apparent triumph of the George W. Bush administration's
narrative on Iran's role in Iraq.
That new narrative threatens to obscure the bigger picture of Iranian policy
toward Iraq, widely recognized by regional specialists. Iran's strategic interests
in Iraq are far more compatible with those of the United States than those of
the Sunni regimes in the region with which the United States has aligned itself.
Contrary to the official narrative, Iranian support for Shi'ites is not aimed
at destabilizing the country but does serve a rational Iranian desire to maximize
its alliances with Iraqi Shi'ite factions, in the view of specialists on Iranian
policy and on the security of the Persian Gulf region.
Symptomatic of the toughening attitude in Congress toward Iran was the 97-0
vote in the Senate last week for a resolution drafted by its leading proponent
of war against Iran, Sen. Joe Lieberman, stating that "the murder of members
of the United States Armed Forces by a foreign government or its agents is an
intolerable act of hostility against the United States." The resolution
demanded that the government of Iran "take immediate action" to end
all forms of support it is providing to Iraqi militias and insurgents.
That vote followed several months of intensive administration propaganda charging
that Iran is arming Shi'ite militias in Iraq, and characterizing Iranian financial
support and training for Shi'ite militias as an aggressive effort to target
US troops and to destabilize Iraq.
But this administration line ignores the fact that Iran's primary ties in Iraq
have always been with those groups who have supported the Nouri al Maliki government,
including the SCIRI and Dawa parties and their paramilitary arm, the Badr Corps,
rather than with anti-government militias. That indicates that Iran's fundamental
interest is to see the government stabilize the situation in the country, according
to Prof. Mohsen Milani of Florida International University, a specialist on
Iran's national security policies.
Milani argues that Iran's interests are more closely aligned with those of
the United States than any other state in the region. "I can't think of
two other countries in the region who want the Iraqi government to succeed,"
He believes the Iranians are so upset with the efforts by the Saudis to undermine
the Shi'ite-dominated government that they may try to use the talks with the
United States on the security of Iraq to introduce intelligence they have gathered
on Saudi support for al-Qaeda and Sunni insurgents.
Trita Parsi, author of a new book on Iranian-Israeli security relations, agrees
that Iran's support for the Maliki government stands in contrast to the attitude
of the leading US Sunni ally in Middle East, Saudi Arabia. "Look at what
the Saudis are calling the Maliki government a puppet government," he
observes. "You're not hearing that from Iran."
Dr. James A. Russell, a lecturer in National Security Affairs at the Naval
Postgraduate School and a specialist on security affairs in the Gulf region,
agrees that the two countries do indeed share common strategic interests in
Iraq, at least in terms of rational, realist definitions of strategic interest.
The problem, Russell says, is that the history of the relationship and domestic
political constituencies pose serious obstacles to realizing those common interests.
Two such obstacles are "the very powerful political constituency for attacking
Iran" and support for Israel, says Russell.
James Dobbins, former US ambassador to Afghanistan and director of the Rand
Corporation's International Security and Defense Policy Center, agrees that
Iran is not trying to destabilize Iraq. "They have been supportive of the
government and hope it prevails," he says. As for the chief source of instability
in Iraq, the Sunni-Shi'ite conflict, Dobbins notes that "Iranians don't
see anything to be gained by Sunni-Shi'ite conflict in Iraq."
Contrary to the impression conveyed by the Bush administration, Iran's ties
to Shi'ite militias do not represent a new development. They have been a constant
in Iranian policy since the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime opened the
way for Shi'ite militias to return from Iran in 2003.
In August 2005 a Time magazine story reported that Iranians were providing
support to what were then called "Shi'ite insurgents" but quoted Western
diplomats as saying that they "appear to be acting defensively rather than
offensively." Those sources noted that the Iranian assistance to Shi'ite
militias was "dwarfed by the amount of money and materiel flowing in from
Iraq's Arab neighbors to Sunni insurgents."
Iran specialists and regional analysts agree that Iran's ties with militias
who attack US and British forces as well as government targets is essentially
a way of ensuring that Iran will be on good terms with any future regime in
Baghdad. "They're trying to hedge their bets," says Dobbins, "because
they're not sure who's going to prevail."
Russell agrees that Iranian support for militias is not aimed at to destabilizing
Iraq but to establish good relations with every Shi'ite faction. "This
is a logical step to protect their interests," he says.
The US military presence is an obvious point of US-Iranian contention over
Iraq. Iran has shown a relatively high level of tolerance for the US occupation
in the past but has grown increasingly critical of that presence over the past
year. Speaking at the World Economic Forum in May, Iranian Foreign Minister
Manouchehr Mottaki charged that the US military presence was a cause of instability
rather than a solution for it.
"We believe that sooner or later they have to decide to withdraw their
troops from Iraq because that is the cause for the continuation of terrorist
activities," he said.
The changing Iranian posture toward the US presence may reflect the relative
weakening of the al-Maliki government and the emergence of the fiercely nationalist
Moqtada al-Sadr as a major political force. Sadr has brought the demand for
a timetable for US withdrawal to the center of his political strategy in recent
Given the uncertain political future of the country and the growing demand
by Shi'ite militias including those which have been affiliated with Sadr's
Mahdi Army for support for armed activities against the occupation, Iran
probably felt that it had little choice but to respond positively.
Although the spokesman for US command recently suggested that Iran has been
supporting "rogue elements" fighting against coalition forces, last
November US intelligence officials confirmed that Mahdi Army units were being
trained by Iranian ally Hezbollah in Lebanon with Sadr's knowledge.
But Iran may also share the interest of the al-Maliki government in having
continued US support for the development of Shi'ite security forces. "Tehran
is not necessarily in favor of a complete pullout," says Russell.
The actual degree of convergence between US and Iranian interests on Iraq
could still be a factor in the bilateral talks on the subject, despite the determination
of the still powerful Vice President Dick Cheney to make sure they fail.