O’Hanlon Delivers A Message Tehran Would Love

Our guest blogger is Peter Juul, a national security consultant at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

ohanlon123.jpgMichael O’Hanlon has yet another op-ed in the Washington Times today arguing that Iran is “seeking to establish itself as the region’s hegemon,” primarily by “stoking violence in Iraq.” Iranian involvement in Iraq has thus become another rationale for O’Hanlon’s open-ended policy of “strategic patience” in Iraq. To prevent Iran from becoming a regional hegemon, the argument goes, “all [the United States] can do is be patient, keep fighting in Iraq… and keep trying to prove we are the reasonable ones.”

O’Hanlon chides proponents of engagement with Iran as failing to “understand the real nature of the situation we face.” As usual, though, it’s O’Hanlon who doesn’t understand the real nature of the situation the United States faces in Iraq and the region more broadly.

As the New York Times reported today, the United States and Iran increasingly find themselves on common ground in Iraq as a result of the open-ended commitment of U.S. forces favored by O’Hanlon and the Bush administration. Iran’s ambassador to Iraq, Hassan Kazemi Qumi, gave strong support to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s offensive against Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in Basra: “The idea of the government in Basra was to fight outlaws. This was the right of the government and the responsibility of the government. And in my opinion the government was able to achieve a positive result in Basra.”

The Iranian ambassador’s words could have come out of the mouth of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. In an unannounced visit to Baghdad yesterday, she praised Maliki’s “very good decision by the Iraqis to not let Basra continue to be under the control of criminals and militias.”

This shouldn’t be surprising – the American-backed Iraqi government is by and large controlled by political parties sympathetic to Tehran. The major supporter of Maliki’s government, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, was even formed in Iran and trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. In effect, both the United States and Iran are backing the same horse in Iraq – a reality of the situation apparently misunderstood my O’Hanlon and other backers of an open-ended military commitment in Iraq.

Moreover, it appears that the United States is doing Maliki’s and Tehran’s dirty work for them. American policymakers seem intent on goading Sadr into making good on his pledge to start an “open war until liberation.” Rice effectively taunted Sadr to ‘bring it on’ this weekend in Baghdad, safely ensconced in the Green Zone while American troops fight in Sadr City.

The Bush administration and its supporters contend that its policy is one of supporting the Iraqi government against an illegitimate militia. What we’re really doing in Iraq is supporting one side – long-time Iranian favorite ISCI – against another – the fickle but popular Sadr – in an intra-Shi’a clash for political power.

If anything, O’Hanlon’s argument for “strategic patience” in Iraq is one Tehran should love – American soldiers and taxpayers continuing to bear the costs of consolidating the power of the most pro-Iran political actor in Iraq. The longer the United States remains involved in Iraq, the better from the Iranian perspective. Rather than having “strategic patience,” the United States should look out for its own interests ahead of Iran’s.