April 16, 2007 -- A FEW months ago, Wash ington circles saw Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as "Tehran's man" in Baghdad. Today, Tehran circles label him "Washington's man" in Baghdad.
Maliki's government has the unenviable task of keeping the Americans in, when they don't want to stay - and the Iranians out, when they want to come in.
Some Americans blame Maliki for doing nothing to hasten the departure of U.S. troops, for not decreeing a blanket pardon of Baathists (regardless of what they did during four decades of despotic domination), and for rejecting federal schemes that could lead to the disintegration of the Iraqi state.
They also criticize Maliki because he refuses to share out Iraq's oil income as if it were loot among thieves.
These American critics want Maliki to throw Iraq to the wolves so that Jack Murtha and Michael Moore can prove that toppling Saddam Hussein was wrong.
Maliki's Khomeinist critics in Tehran have their own beef.
The Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) recently called Maliki "too pro-Arab." In plain language, that means he emphasizes the Arab identity of the majority of Iraqi peoples - rather than their sectarian affiliation, as Tehran would prefer.
Last month, Ali Khamenei, the top mullah in the Khomeinist system, attacked Maliki in a roundabout way. He recalled that many leaders of the new Iraq spent years in Iran as exiles, and he implied that it was payback time. Last week, the mullahs showed their anger by refusing to let Maliki's plane pass through Iranian airspace on its way to the Far East.
Maliki has offered no favors to the mullahs. He visited half a dozen capitals in the early stages of his premiership - but pointedly avoided Tehran. He also turned down Tehran's offer of hosting a regional conference on Iraq, preferring to hold the exercise in Baghdad and then, later this year, in Cairo.
Maliki has also given the green light to a crackdown on Shiite militias and death squads, serving notice that the war of the sectarians must end. Within the next few weeks, he is expected to further anger Tehran by dropping from his Cabinet all five Sadrist ministers, who are beholden to the Iranian regime.
Tehran indicated its displeasure by activating its networks in Iraq to organize last week's demonstrations in Najaf.
Despite months of pressure from Tehran, Maliki has also refused to scrap the maritime-inspection mission of the Coalition forces under a mandate from the United Nations Security Council. (The 15 British sailors captured by Tehran last month were operating on that mission.)
Tehran wants the mission terminated for two reasons:
* First, it wants to impose total control on the Shatt al-Arab, a waterway between Iran and Iraq, thus violating the 1975 Algiers agreement that established the thalweg (the deepest channel in the river) as the frontier.
This would quickly translate to Iranian control of access to Iraq's 75-kilometer-long Persian Gulf coastline - turning the Iraqi ports of Basra, Um-Qasar, Al-Bakr and Fao into strategic hostages.
* Second, the Islamic Republic fears that the United Nations might, at some point, use the inspection mechanism against the Islamic Republic in the showdown over the nuclear issue. (Recent Security Council resolutions would allow the monitoring of Iranian naval traffic in the Gulf to continue from Iraqi bases even after the U.S.-led Coalition has left.)
The Maliki government has also made moves to reassert Iraqi sovereignty over chunks of the border with Iran that had become no-man's land or seized by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRCG).
Shortly after Saddam Hussein's fall, the IRCG captured the Zaynalkosh salient, some 700 square miles, and built a number of fortifications there. The Maliki government has refused to accept this open theft of Iraqi territory.
Tehran is also sore that the Maliki government has re-imposed visas for Iranians, making it more difficult to smuggle Khomeinist agents among thousands of pilgrims who travel to Iraq each day.
Worse still, the Maliki government has arrested, or acquiesced in the arrest of, almost a dozen senior IRGC officers, including two generals still held by the Americans in Baghdad.
The most important cause of Tehran's anger, however, is Maliki's strategic vision of Iraq's relations with the Western democracies.
The mullahs want Iraq to become a theater of historic humiliation for the West, especially the United States. They hope to see the Americans running away, not withdrawing in the context of an agreement with a friendly Iraqi government. They want the credit for chasing away the Americans to go to Tehran and its Iraqi allies, notably Muqtada al-Sadr.
Maliki, however, wants the U.S.-led coalition out of Iraq only when the new Iraq is capable of defending itself against its enemies, including the Khomeinist regime in Tehran. Beyond that, he wants to maintain a strategic partnership with the Western democracies in the interest of Iraq's economic development.
Both the mullahs and the Jack Murtha Democrats hate Maliki because he is working to prevent their respective dreams from coming true.
The mullahs dream of that "last U.S. helicopter" taking off from a Baghdad rooftop, spelling the end of American hopes of bringing decent government to Iraq.
The Murtha Democrats may not want a humiliating American defeat in Iraq but would like something that looks like one. Only perceived defeat in Iraq would give their party something with which to unite its base and make a bid for the White House next year.
It may be a coincidence. However, each time Democrats throw a poisonous arrow at Maliki, they are followed by mullahs doing the same the next day. Maybe Maliki is doing something right?
Iranian-born journalist and author Amir Taheri is based in Europe.