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WHAT IRAN IS AFTER IN IRAQ
by Amir Taheri
New York Post
December 17, 2004

December 17, 2004 -- IN Washington this month, King Abdullah II of Jordan pleaded with his American hosts to postpone Iraq's first free election, scheduled for late January.

The king warned that Tehran has mobilized over a million Iranians to infiltrate Iraq and vote in the election, thus ensuring the victory of pro-Iranian candidates.

The claim is so bizarre that, had it come from a lesser person, it would not have merited attention. Recruiting, training and deploying over a million fake voters is no easy task. And the present Iranian government can't trust a million people in elections inside Iran, let alone in Iraq.

And where would one find a million Arabic-speaking Iranians who could talk and walk like Iraqis? It is enough for an Arabic-speaking Persian to open his mouth for everyone to know that he is not Iraqi. Grand Ayatollah Ali-Muhammad Sistani, the primus inter pares of Iraqi Shiite clerics, still retains his Persian accent despite having spent more than half a century in Najaf.

The king's claim, inspired by the Arab penchant for conspiracy theories, could be dismissed as fanciful. But Iran is determined to play a central role in shaping the future of Iraq, and will do all it can to affect the results of the election.

The reasons are not hard to divine.

Until 9/11, Iran was the only power interested in changing the regional status quo. It saw itself surrounded by enemies, notably Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan. It also nurtured hopes of de-stabilizing the traditional Arab regimes that it regarded as moribund.

The Clinton administration had gone out of its way to forge a relationship with the Taliban, sending a succession of emissaries, including then-U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson, to Kabul to sweet-talk Mullah Muhammad Omar into joining Washington in efforts to isolate Tehran. In 1998 and 1999, the Clintonites also tried to find a modus vivendi with Saddam.

But the 9/11 attacks persuaded Americans that the status quo they had cherished in the Middle East was a threat to their national security.

As far as destroying the Taliban regime and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein were concerned, Iran was on the U.S. side: The Americans were doing what the Iranians had prayed for. But when it comes to creating a new order in the region, Iran wishes to have its say.

Iran has accepted the new regime in Afghanistan for two reasons. First, the regime, by maintaining an Islamist appearance, does not cast itself as an ideological challenge to the Khomeinist system in Iran. Second, Iran has been allowed to retain a strong presence in Afghanistan, largely through the Hazara Shiite community, and to exert some influence at least as far as counterbalancing Pakistan is concerned.

The Iranian calculation is that America, thousands of miles away, is bound to one day wind up its military presence in Afghanistan. And that would open the way for a massive return of Iran, which will always be there as the region's principal power.

Iran uses a similar analysis in Iraq.

For Iran, the worst outcome of Iraq's crisis would be the emergence of a new regime based on Arab Sunnis with a pan-Arab, and thus anti-Persian, ideology. Given time, such a regime could claim the leadership of the Arab world and frustrate Iran's regional ambitions.

But the Arab Sunnis can only regain power by forcing the Americans into a precipitous withdrawal. This would be a disaster for Iran — so Iran does not want the United States to fail in Iraq.

Yet Iran does not want America to succeed easily. It wants to bleed the United States as much as possible en route to eventual success in Iraq. The cost of success should be so high as to make it impossible for the Bush administration, or its successors, to win popular support at home for any similar venture, for example, in targeting Iran itself.

So the Iranian strategy is to push the United States to the edge in Iraq, but no further. America should respond in kind.

The United States should acknowledge the fact that at this moment in Iraq, Iran is an objective tactical ally, insofar as it also opposes the revival of a Sunni-based pan-Arab regime. But the Americans should raise the political cost for Iran of a success that both seek.

While denying Iran a place at the high table, it is prudent for the United States to allow its regional rival a stool at another table at the banquet. The coming elections should be used to lock Iran into a policy of cautious support for a new, U.S.-shaped status quo.

The Irano-American rivalry has divided the new Iraqi elite into two camps.

In one camp are those who see Iran as Iraq's strategic enemy and hope to counter it with a discourse of pan-Arab nationalism. They deem the United States a tactical ally in helping Iraq rebuild a state, an army and a security service, leaving in place not a democracy but a "lite" version of Arab authoritarian rule.

In the other camp one finds those who are trying to stay in the good books of both Tehran and Washington. These people believe that the future Iraqi regime, which is bound to be dominated by the Shiite majority, would need Iranian support for years to counter plots by neighboring Arab states that fear both Shiism and democracy. Here the argument is that the U.S. attention span is short and that there is no guarantee that a future administration in Washington would remain as committed to Iraq as President Bush.

All this underlines the importance of the January election. The mullahs of Tehran would find it hard to bully a people-based government in Iraq. The beginning of democracy in Iraq is bound to encourage the democratic movement in predominantly Shiite Iran. The religious leadership in Najaf is already beginning to build a network of support throughout Iran and, given time, is certain to challenge the cult of Khomeini's personality, which is the basis of the Iranian regime's ideology.

The future Iraqi regime will be based on a coalition in which both pro-Iranian Shiite groups and pan-Arab elements will have a share. The best policy for the United States is to stand above the fray and to insist on only one thing: In a democratic Iraq, there is room for all, including its adversaries.

E-mail: amirtaheri@benadorassociates.com

 

Email Benador Associates: eb@benadorassociates.com

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