Say you have two presidents of two countries, both of whom have established a relationship with a third country and are in competition there for greater influence and strategic depth.
When visiting the third country, the first president arrives unannounced and in secret, is whisked from the airport via helicopter to a heavily fortified compound in the capital, where he holds meetings for a few hours and then a press conference before being whisked back to the airport and departing the country.
The second president, on the other hand, announces his trip weeks in advance, travels from the airport to the capital via motorcade, is welcomed in an elaborate red carpet ceremony, and then leisurely visits various cultural and religious sites.
Oh, I almost forgot to mention: The first president gets shoes thrown at him.
Based on these two scenarios, who would you say is winning this competition?
Joe Klein responds:
I’m not sure the implication is entirely accurate: going forward, the relationship between Iraq’s security forces and the U.S. military–locked in by spare parts, logistics and training regimes–could be every bit as significant as Iraq’s fraternal Shi’ite ties with Iran. The neoconservatives who see Iraq as a bastion of freedom are, I think, deep in fantasyland…but that doesn’t necessarily mean Iraq will go over completely to the dark side, either. The tug of war between U.S. and Iranian operatives in Mesopotamia should be fascinating.
Others — such as my friend Eli Lake — have also played up the importance of the future US-Iraq military relationship. While I think this does have some significant implications, I think the idea that a US-Iraqi military partnership could lead to a US-Iraqi relationship “every bit as significant as Iraq’s fraternal Shi’ite ties with Iran” is pretty implausible.
In addition to the fact that key members of Iraq’s military and political leadership were themselves trained in Iran, or belong to organizations that were, and in addition to the strong cultural and religious ties between Iranian and Iraqi Shias, Iran has increasingly embedded itself in Iraq’s economy. Iraq serving as Iran’s biggest export market. Over 20,000 Iranians are estimated to visit Najaf and Karbala each month for religious pilgrimage, bringing millions of tourist dollars.
It’s perfectly natural that these connections would develop, but the bottom line is that Iran has contacts and influence at all levels of Iraqi Shia society, government, and economy, at a depth which the US can not hope to match, no matter how many hours we spend teaching Iraqi pilots to fix and fly F-16s.