WHILE Washington is looking for ways to adjust its strategy in Iraq, Tehran seems to be preparing to "settle scores" with it by preventing the emergence of a pro-American regime in Baghdad.
The Iranian leadership appears confident about its chances to call the shots in Iraq. To test the waters, Iran on Wednesday dispatched its deputy foreign minister, Hussein Sadeqi, to Iraq with the mission to negotiate an end to the stand-off between the U.S.-led Coalition and gangs of Shiite rebels in Baghdad and Najaf.
For almost a quarter of a century, Saddam Hussein's Ba'athist regime had been a threat to Iran's Khomeinist rulers. Saddam had failed to topple the Khomeinists with an eight-year war in which he had the support of Western powers - including, at one time, the United States.
In the last 12 years of his rule, the Iraqi dictator had been unable to pursue his duel with the mullahs of Tehran in a serious way. Nevertheless, the mullahs continued to consider Saddam as a strategic enemy who, given another chance, would resume his campaign against them.
Thus it is no exaggeration to say that Tehran was as glad as Washington to see Saddam go. But his removal created another, potentially more dangerous, threat to the Khomeinists: the emergence in Iraq of a democratic system in which the Shiites would play the central role.
The Tehran leadership know that Iraq has the potential to create such a system - but also that it cannot be built overnight. The mullahs also know that U.S. commitment is the key factor in deciding whether Iraq will build a new democratic state or plunge into chaos, civil war and (possibly) disintegration.
So the Tehran mullahs have been asking, "When will the Americans cut and run?" The question was raised by the leadership in Tehran days after the entry of the U.S.-led Coalition forces in Baghdad. Today, it is being asked with even greater urgency.
The first attempt at an answer was made by Ali Khamenei, the Islamic Republic's "Supreme Guide," only days after the Ba'athist regime had been toppled. He predicted that the loss of 500 U.S. soldiers would force America to "escape from Iraq post-haste."
Since then, the Khomeinist leaders have refrained from that type of numbers game. But they remain confident that the United States will be driven out of Iraq "humiliated and chastised." To achieve that, they have devised a strategy of destabilizing Iraq without provoking direct confrontation with America.
A rare insight into Tehran's thinking was offered April 9 by Hashemi Rafsanjani, a mullah often regarded as the Khomeinist regime's "strongman." In a sermon on the campus of Tehran University, Rafsanjani ignored religious themes to focus on "the imminent settling of scores between America and Iran."
"The weaker the U.S. becomes, the stronger [our regime in] Iran," he said. "We have some scores with America that must be settled one day." Rafsanjani based his analysis on the premise that the United States has already failed in Iraq and presented 32 "reasons" to back that claim. "The U.S. has been exposed as an empty drum," Rafsanjani said. "The Americans are wondering what to do: Stay [in Iraq], or cut and run?"
He praised Saddam Hussein's "strategy of distributing arms among 6 million Iraqis" on the eve of the war. "These people have enough arms and ammunitions for six months," Rafsanjani claimed. That indicates Tehran's belief that various armed groups in Iraq will be able to maintain a level of insecurity in Iraq right to the eve of the American presidential election in November.
Rafsanjani also praised the group known as the Jaish al-Mahdi (The Messianic Army) led by Muqtada Sadr, a junior mullah of Iranian origin, as "passionate young men with epic courage." He also revealed that Iran has created an Iraqi branch of the Hezbollah (Party of God) in Iraq. "The [Iraqi] Hezbollah was fighting a resistance against Saddam," Rafsanjani said. "And today it has an iron-like organization."
Word that Iran had created an underground branch of the Hezbollah in Iraq is of special interest. It shows that the Khomeinist leaders, while supporting mainstream Iraqi Shiite opposition groups, including the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Ad-Da'awah (The Call) Party, had made sure to have another Shiite card up their sleeves.
One aim of the troubles provoked by Muqtada Sadr may well be to wreck U.S. efforts to promote a unified Iraqi Shiite front as the central plank of a future Iraqi state. Tehran knows that the Iraqi Shiites, if united, would no longer need Iranian patronage - and might emerge as an ideological rival to the regime in Tehran.
Iran has practiced the policy of never putting all its eggs in a single basket on other occasions. In early 1980s Lebanon, Tehran split the Shiite community by creating the Hezbollah against the Amal movement. Then, in the 1990s, Tehran encouraged two breakaway factions in Hezbollah itself.
In Afghanistan, Tehran balanced support for various groups so as to prevent them from uniting with a strategy that might reduce the importance of Iranian patronage for each. At one point, Iran was supporting both Ismail Khan, the "emir of Herat," and the Hazara groups nibbling at the area under his control.
In Tajikistan, Iran split the Islamist movement into three factions before making a deal with the neo-communist government in Doshanbeh.
In Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States, for reasons of its own, destroyed the two regimes that Tehran regarded as its own most dangerous ideological enemies in the region. Now Tehran's ambition is to emerge as the kingmaker in both Kabul and Baghdad.
The Iranian analysis is simple: The Americans do not have the political stamina to stay the course in Iraq. Negative polls could force President Bush to withdraw his troops into bases in the Iraqi desert, allowing the cities to fall under the control of Iraqi armed groups.
In such a scenario, pro-Saddam groups would seize control of the so-called Sunni Triangle while Shiite groups beholden to Iran would dominate central and southern Iraq, leaving the Kurds cantoned in their two mountainous enclaves.
The Tehran leadership is also certain that John Kerry, if elected, will abandon Bush's plans for a "democratic" Middle East. "The United States has become vulnerable," Rafsanjani told his cheering audience in Tehran. "The Americans do not know which way to turn."
Behind the scenes of revolt in parts of Iraq lies the broader picture of the war that various brands of Islamism have waged against the United States for almost a quarter of a century.
Tehran leaders believe that the U.S. defeat in Vietnam enabled China to establish itself as the rising power in Asia. They hope that a U.S. defeat in Iraq will give the Islamic Republic a similar opportunity to become what Rafsanjani calls "the regional superpower."
The Khomeinist mullahs believe that an American defeat in Iraq will destabilize all Arab regimes, leaving the Islamic Republic as the only power around which a new status quo could be built in the region. "Here is our opportunity to teach the Americans a lesson," Rafsanjani said.
Well, that might also work the other way round.