March 24, 2005

Iranian Influence in Iraq

Is less than advertised.

Iran has the potential to do great mischief in post-Saddam Iraq, but despite wide-spread allegations, actual evidence of attempts to destabilise the country is rare and evidence of achievement rarer still. Instead, Iran's priority has been to prevent Iraq from re-emerging as a threat to it, which means preventing both outright failure in Baghdad or clear success...
Iran's strength lies elsewhere. Having fought a brutal eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980s, its security agencies are highly familiar with Iraq's physical and political terrain and are able to sustain an active intelligence presence in southern Iraq, Baghdad and Kurdistan. Iranian levers of influence include a widespread network of paid informers, the increasingly assertive Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC, or Pasdaran), and petro-dollar funded religious propaganda and social welfare campaigns. Most importantly, Tehran has tried to influence Iraq's political process by giving support, in particular, to SCIRI. Even then, and while the record of the past two years suggests a solid Iranian motive to interfere in Iraq and plenty of Iranian activity, it also suggests little resonance, and, therefore, a negligible impact, on Iraqi society. This is because of a deep suspicion and resentment on the part of many Iraqis toward their neighbour.

The starting point to understand Iran's role must be a proper assessment of its interests. These are relatively clear and, for the most part, openly acknowledged. Tehran's priority is to prevent Iraq from re-emerging as a threat, whether of a military, political or ideological nature, and whether deriving from its failure (its collapse into civil war or the emergence of an independent Iraqi Kurdistan with huge implications for Iran's disaffected Kurdish minority) or success (its consolidation as an alternative democratic or religious model appealing to Iran's disaffected citizens). Iran consequently is intent on preserving Iraq's territorial integrity, avoiding all-out instability, encouraging a Shiite-dominated, friendly government, and, importantly, keeping the U.S. preoccupied and at bay. This has entailed a complex three-pronged strategy: encouraging electoral democracy (as a means of producing Shiite rule); promoting a degree of chaos but of a manageable kind (in order to generate protracted but controllable disorder); and investing in a wide array of diverse, often competing Iraqi actors (to minimise risks in any conceivable outcome) [emphasis added]

Check out the bolded section above. Except for last prong, U.S. and Iranian interests in Iraq seem rather aligned! Yes, I'm being a tad facetious, but there is clearly room for cooperation here. More fodder for the Zbig 'grand bargain' crowd post Takeyh-Pollack Thermidor, doubtless...

UPDATE: The estimable Dan Darling has more. I'll be reacting to his lengthy post soon (I hope!).

Posted by Gregory at March 24, 2005 05:40 AM | TrackBack (6)

Read my analysis of it up on WoC in a few hours, you may change your mind.

Posted by: Dan Darling at March 24, 2005 08:05 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"Iran consequently is intent on preserving Iraq's territorial integrity, avoiding all-out instability, encouraging a Shiite-dominated, friendly government, and, importantly, keeping the U.S. preoccupied and at bay. "

Why would you consider these as aligned with US interests?

Is it actually in US interest to promote iraqi territorial integrity? A separate kurdistan with US bases would be dependent on us and would be our only friend in the middle east. We've created all-out instability, do you figure we don't want that? We sure don't want a shi-ite government that's friently to iran.

Iranian interests in iraq are by definition opposed to our interests because we are opposed to the existence of the current iranian government. That doesn't leave a lot of room for bargaining.

Posted by: J Thomas at March 24, 2005 10:32 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The Iranian objective outlined here sound rather more like objectives held separately by different elements of the Iranian government than they do components of a coordinated strategy.

It's not likely the Mahdi Army could have armed itself so lavishly without Iranian support, but its crushing defeats in frontal battles with the American army probably was not in the plan. It's also likely that some Iranians are encouraged by the progress toward a democratically chosen, Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad, while some Iranians -- perhaps some of the same ones -- are nervous about what a popularly chosen government with real power next door could inspire in their own country.

I would agree there are probably some Iranian objectives everyone in that country agrees on. I just think it's a mistake to assume that other governments always follow carefully worked out strategies -- God knows ours doesn't! -- instead of muddling along with one eye on its own domestic political situation.

Posted by: Zathras at March 24, 2005 06:03 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I think the context is wrong. Iran's objectives in Iraq are not at all defined by what kind of Iraq they want. Iran's objectives have to do with the United States and the spread of freedom in the region.

I believe our intelligence on Iran--including the IGC stuff you have linked--is pretty bad. I think the Iranians, in tandem with the Syrians and to a lesser extent the Saudis, are going all out to drive us from Iraq. They have largely failed, but I expect they will keep trying until they are finally brought down by our own people (I hope with some help from the so-called Western world).

In the fullness of time we'll have a more complete picture of the terror war in Iraq, and we'll see who was right. But the main thing is to think about it in the proper context. Iran's major problem is our presence on their borders, east and west. It is not the makeup of the next Iraqi government.

cheers. hope you have a wonderful holiday.

Posted by: michael ledeen at March 26, 2005 03:07 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

MIchael, in the short run the USA is definitely the elephant in the cabbage patch for iran and syria and saudi arabia. But are they better off with us driven out of iraq, or are they better off with us bogged down in iraq? I'd figure that iran and saudi arabia both would tend to echo Kissinger's view of an earlier iraq war. "It's a pity they can't both lose...."

But iran will have to live with some sort of iraq long after we're gone. So the makeup of the next iraqi government is important to them. There's a question whether the assembly meeting in the Green Zone is actually building the next iraqi government, but if they might be then the iranian government will be interested.

Posted by: J Thomas at March 26, 2005 04:06 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I have more detail over at Winds of Change. We know Iran has long supported al Qaeda. We know that Zarqawi created his network while based in Tehran. We know that Iranian Shi'ites were trained by Arafat's Sunnis, yet the IGC tells us that IRan has never supported foreign Sunnis. Pfui.

The real Iran/Iraq clash is within Shi'ism. That, plus the urgency to drive us out of Iraq, is the central issue IMHO.

The nature of Iraq's internal polity is peripheral, since the central issue threatens the survival of the regimes in Tehran, Damascus and Riyadh. Or so it seems to me.

Posted by: michael ledeen at March 26, 2005 06:27 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"It ain't the things we don't know that hurt us. It's the things we know that ain't so."

Posted by: J Thomas at March 26, 2005 10:55 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


Lest we foolishly accept Mr. Ledeen's premises rather than your expert opinion on what the Iranians believe, might you kindly inform us of what statements of fact (not his analysis thereof) which Mr. Ledeen believes are so, that are not so and please let us know why you believe they are not so?

Posted by: Lance at March 27, 2005 06:09 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Lance, if it's true that Michael is jumping to conclusions, I have no obligation to convince you that I can jump farther and be righter.

Notice his unqualified acceptance of published US intelligence data. "Fool me three times...."

Note the "Arafat's Sunnis" when the PLO has been about as secular as a palestinian group can get, and has a strong christian component and somewhat-plausible links to the "catholic" IRA. That sentence is a massive non sequitur. One might as profitably judge US government actions according to how christian they are.

"The real Iran/Iraq clash is within Shi'ism." This is like saying "the real britain/ireland clash is within christianity", but less informative.

He could be right that the central issue should be the USA, just as the central issue for asians in 1943 should have been the japanese. But note that the communists and the nationalists in china during that time were both saving considerable resources for their struggle against each other -- because it was predictable that the japanese would be gone in a few years but their fight with each other would continue until one side was defeated. I can't say with any certainty how the iranian government actually views it, but they ought to be looking carefully at what they'll face after we're out of there.

And if they're feeling such urgency to drive us out quick, why aren't they giving SA-18s to whoever in iraq would use them against us?

The story doesn't hold together.

Here's a related question: When we were supplying the afghans against the USSR, was our intention to drive the USSR out of afghanistan as quickly as possible, or was our intention to bleed them as much as we could? Or something else? Which goal should we have followed?

Posted by: J Thomas at March 27, 2005 07:46 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

What follows is an accurate chronology of United States involvement in the arming of Iraq during the Iraq-Iran war 1980-88. It is a powerful indictment of the president Bush administration attempt to sell war as a component of his war on terrorism. It reveals US ambitions in Iraq to be just another chapter in the attempt to regain a foothold in the Mideast following the fall of the Shah of Iran.

Arming Iraq: A Chronology of U.S. Involvement

Whatever his complexes, Khomeini had no qualms about sending his followers, including young boys, off to their deaths for his greater glory. This callous disregard for human life was no less characteristic of Saddam Hussein. And, for that matter, it was also no less characteristic of much of the world community, which not only couldn't be bothered by a few hundred thousand Third World corpses, but tried to profit from the conflict.

The United States and Iran-Iraq War 1980-1988

Posted by: NeoDude at March 27, 2005 06:21 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

From "A Clean Break"

King Hussein may have ideas for Israel in bringing its Lebanon problem under control. The predominantly Shia population of southern Lebanon has been tied for centuries to the Shia leadership in Najf, Iraq rather than Iran. Were the Hashemites to control Iraq, they could use their influence over Najf to help Israel wean the south Lebanese Shia away from Hizballah, Iran, and Syria. Shia retain strong ties to the Hashemites: the Shia venerate foremost the Prophet's family, the direct descendants of which -- and in whose veins the blood of the Prophet flows -- is King Hussein.

From A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm
A report prepared by The Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies' "Study Group on a New Israeli Strategy Toward 2000." The main substantive ideas in this paper emerge from a discussion in which prominent opinion makers, including Richard Perle, James Colbert, Charles Fairbanks, Jr., Douglas Feith, Robert Loewenberg, David Wurmser, and Meyrav Wurmser participated. The report, entitled "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm," is the framework for a series of follow-up reports on strategy.

Posted by: NeoDude at March 27, 2005 06:55 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

To J Thomas:

I do not accept the american intelligence, as you call it. The data of Zarqawi comes from ITalian and German court documents, for example. Members of his network were convicted and sent to jail, in part because of intercepts of their conversations with Zarqawi when he was in Tehran. And there is additional stuff along those lines.

The Iran-al Qaeda relationship is documented in US court documents as well, specifically in the original indictment of bin Laden, four or five years before 9/11, and the 9/11 committee also commented on the relationship, and criticized CIA for not paying attention to it earlier.

And Arafat comes right out of the (Sunni) Muslim Brotherhood.

Posted by: michael ledeen at March 27, 2005 11:05 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

i gotta say i disagree

Posted by: Backroom Facials at March 29, 2005 04:36 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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