Neocons Still Misunderstanding Iran’s Role In Iraq

ajad-maliki.jpgIn the wake of the passage of the status of forces agreementAgreement on Complete U.S. Withdrawal from Iraq,” our neoconservative friends are again revealing themselves as deeply confused about Iran’s actual relationship with various actors in the new Iraq.

Charles Krauthammer

A self-sustaining, democratic and pro-American Iraq is within our reach.

[This] would constitute a major defeat for Tehran, the putative winner of the Iraq war, according to the smart set. Iran’s client, Moqtada al-Sadr, still hiding in Iran, was visibly marginalized in parliament — after being militarily humiliated in Basra and Baghdad by the new Iraqi security forces. Moreover, the major religious Shiite parties were the ones that negotiated, promoted and assured passage of the strategic alliance with the United States, against the most determined Iranian opposition.

Eli Lake:

What the [status of forces agreement] does…is establish the political legitimacy of American troops in Iraq for the next three years and provides a framework beyond that. It is perhaps for this reason that the remnants of Moqtada Al Sadr’s organization have protested the agreement, as have more and more of the hard-line clerics in Iran.

Bill Roggio:

How quickly the narrative on Sadr has changed. Today, the Washington Post describes a weakened Sadr, with a near-toothless political movement, struggling to find its path after suffering a stinging defeat after the passage of the Status of Forces agreement between the United States and Iraq.

While it’s clearly true Sadr’s movement has been weakened, Roggio’s presents this as primarily the result of cunning U.S. military strategy. There’s no acknowledgment of Iran’s role — apart from mentioning “Sadr’s Iranian-backed Mahdi Army” — in brokering the cease-fires between Maliki and Sadr, nor of the extent to which Sadr’s marginalization is the result of Maliki’s co-opting Sadr’s demand for a hard date for U.S. withdrawal.

There’s really very little excuse any more for the “U.S. and Iraqi forces versus Iranian-backed militias” frame. Iran’s close relationship with all the leading Iraqi Shia political trends is well known. An October report from West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) offers a pretty comprehensive analysis of Iran’s strategy in Iraq (pdf):

Iran has a robust program to exert influence in Iraq in order to limit American power projtestion capability in the Middle East, ensure the Iraqi government does not post a threat to Iran, and build a reliable platform for projecting influence further abroad. Iran has two primary modes of influence. First, and most importantly, it projects political influence by leveraging close historical relationships with several Shi’a organizations in Iraq: the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, the Badr organization, and the Dawah political party. Second, Iran uses the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and Qods Force to provide aid in the form of paramilitary training, weapons, and equipment to various Iraqi militant groups, including Moqtada al‐Sadr’s Jaysh al‐Mahdi and the Special Group Criminals. […]

Iran has achieved three major accomplishments in Iraq. First, the unstable security situation and political opposition means the U.S. is not in a position to use Iraq as a platform for targeting Iran. Second, Iran’s political allies have secured high‐ranking positions in the Iraqi government. Third, the Iraqi constitution calls for a highly federalized state. Iran values a decentralized Iraq because it will be less capable of projecting power, and because Iran is primarily concerned with Iraq’s southern, oil‐rich, Shi’a‐dominated provinces.

At a recent conference on Iraq, I met a fellow from Nasiriyah named Haider who described to me the process by which Iran attempted to recruit him. After initially working with the coalition forces in his town, he was informed that “Tehran was watching” him, and was curious about his future plans. Travel was arranged for him, first to Khoramshar, where he was attended and observed for several days by an IRGC minder, then to Tehran, where an officer of the IRGC offered him $10,000 to help him get set up as a politician in Iraq, which he said he politely refused. Many other made this trip, he said, and most did not refuse.

America has baked Iraq like a cake,” Haider said. “And given it to Iran to eat.”

The support that Iran provides various militias and Shia insurgents like Jaysh al-Mahdi — which has been overstated — is ancillary. Iran’s most important and effective mode of influence in Iraq is political. They exercise this influence through their main proxies, ISCI and teh Badr Organization, through a close and longstanding relationship with the Da’wa Party, and through numerous personal contacts within Iraq that the IRGC has assiduously cultivated since the 2003 invasion. The idea that the security agreement represents a defeat for Tehran, or that the current Iraqi government is an ally against Iran, is simply nonsense.

Because the neocons have consistently treated military progress as the primary metric of success in Iraq — based upon their general ideological disposition in favor of military power — they have completely missed all of this. In attempting to interpret Iraq through the lens of military success, they’ve basically been looking for their keys under the street lamp because the light is better there.