The Iranian Game

MIN READApr 24, 2003 | 20:10 GMT

Following an overwhelmingly successful war, the United States has encountered a final but significant intelligence failure. Embedded in U.S. strategic thinking has been the valid assumption that the oppressed Shiite majority of Iraq would welcome the fall of Saddam Hussein. The extended concept — that the Shiites would rise in support of the U.S. invasion — proved overly optimistic. The final concept — that the Shiites would passively accept U.S. governance — has proven false. The fundamental error was this: Washington was concerned that the Shiites were insufficiently organized to rise up. What was not anticipated was that there was no uprising because the Shiites were well organized and under control — and that they would not risk themselves prior to U.S. victory. Instead, they would turn to confront the Americans after the war. In other words, U.S. leaders expected that, at worst, they would have time to consolidate their hold on Iraq while the Shiites pulled themselves together and, at best, the Shiites would collaborate with the Americans. Every war has its nasty surprise, and this is the nasty surprise for the Americans: The Shiites have decided not to give the Americans the breathing room they needed, but have moved directly into confrontation with the United States. The Americans, on encountering the problem, quite correctly looked across the border at Iran — warning Tehran not to interfere in Iraqi affairs. The Iranians in fact are the center of gravity of the problem: Iraqi Shiites, suppressed for a generation by Hussein, have consistently looked east toward Iran for what little support they could expect. The United States, having failed to support a Shiite rising in 1991, was viewed as a dubious ally, prepared to fight to the last drop of Shiite blood. Therefore, it now appears that Iran was able to covertly organize at least a significant portion of the Iraqi Shiite community, and through this organization is managing Shiite resistance to the United States. It should be emphasized that there is no evidence of Iranian coercion. The Iraqi Shiites appear to be quite prepared to play their role, and there is no reason to believe that the Iranians can push the Iraqi Shiite community in directions that do not coincide with their interests. The problem for the United States is that those interests appear to coincide for now: Demanding that Tehran keep its agents out of Iraq is locking the barn door long after the horse has already left. Iranians clearly have been operating covertly in Iraq for years. To get a handle on this problem, we need to begin by considering the geopolitics of the region. As the two major powers in the Persian Gulf region, Iraq and Iran are historical rivals, dating back to Babylon and Persia. The rivalry between them has been the protection for the region: States like Saudi Arabia or Kuwait maintain their independence primarily because Iraq and Iran are locked in a permanent balance of power, with each preventing the other from trying to dominate the region. After the Iraq-Iran war, for example, Iran's relative weakness freed Iraq to invade Kuwait. At that point, Kuwait's only hope was the intervention of an outside power: the United States. Washington attempted to do two things: First, to restore Kuwaiti sovereignty; second, to restore the balance of power in the region. It did this first by massively damaging the Iraqi army, rendering it no stronger than that of Iran — but without destroying that army. U.S. leaders understood that the destruction of the Iraqi army would make Iran the dominant power in the region. Since Washington did not want to station a large military force in the region, its ideal outcome was to restore the balance of power between Iraq and Iran by damaging and containing the Iraqi army and hoping that Hussein would fall of his own accord. However, the U.S. calculation was that even if Hussein didn't fall, that outcome was preferable to a complete Iraqi collapse. The strategy adopted by the United States in invading Iraq essentially abandoned the traditional balance-of-power strategy. The reason was that an overriding consideration — al Qaeda — had emerged in the intervening years. Washington's primary interest shifted from protecting the balance of power in the Persian Gulf to forcing regional powers to cooperate aggressively in the war against al Qaeda. The balance of power gave states like Saudi Arabia room to maneuver. Their first line of security was the Iraq-Iran equation. So long as that held, their dependence on the United States was somewhat limited and therefore the pressure on them to cooperate against al Qaeda could be resisted. The United States had to change this equation. The way to do so was to bring direct military power to bear on all countries in the region. The means for doing this was to invade and occupy Iraq. The problem with this was what to do with Iraq's traditional adversary and balancer — Iran. Or to put it differently, what would Iran's policy be after such an invasion? The equation is complicated by the fact that Iran is not only a bystander; it is a prime reason for invading Iraq. From Iraq, U.S. troops will be able to pressure — or even strike — Iran. The United States has three direct issues with Iran: · Officials in Washington believe al Qaeda has received support from important elements in Iran on at least an intermittent basis, and that the government of Iran is unwilling or unable to stop it. The United States also regards the Iranian revolution as a general inspiration for anti-American Islamic operatives. · U.S. leaders are concerned that Iran is developing weapons of mass destruction, and they are particularly concerned about the country's ability to develop nuclear weapons. · Combining the first point with the second point, Washington is concerned that, quite apart from what Iran might do with these weapons, they weapons might fall into the hands of al Qaeda or similar groups and be used against the United States. Given the U.S. concern with al Qaeda, the United States clearly intends to use its position in Iraq to bring pressure —- the degree of which will be determined by Iranian actions — on Iran. Tehran's interests obviously run counter to those of Washington. The Iranians indeed are concerned that the United States might wage war against Iran. Geography and other factors would appear to make this a much tougher proposition than invading Iraq. However, given the U.S. performance in Iraq, officials in Tehran must operate under the worst-case assumption, which is that should the United States choose military action — something no longer inconceivable — it might succeed as effectively as it did in Iraq. Therefore, the Iranians must avoid doing anything to provoke war with the United States. They must choose their actions in a context in which American confidence is extremely high and where, therefore, American behavior is fundamentally unpredictable. There also is an opportunity on the table, risky as it is. Iran's historical enemy, Iraq, has been smashed. Iraq's army has disintegrated. For the moment, it appears that its society is disintegrating as well. If, by some miracle, the United States was to withdraw its forces from Iraq, Iran would, by default, become the dominant power in the Persian Gulf, achieving its historical dream. Now, the Iranians are not dreamers and believe in miracles only officially. They understand fully the danger they are in and they know that the United States is not about to withdraw its forces. The Iranians are caught between their primordial fear — invasion and occupation by a great power — and their primordial dream: hegemony over the Persian Gulf. It is a strange moment requiring subtle policies. Tehran appears to have created a multi-tiered solution: · Do nothing to provoke the United States on a national level. Having provided a degree of support during the war, Iran was praised by Britain. At the recent meeting of foreign ministers in Riyadh, Iran did not dramatically break with those who suggested that a period of U.S. rule in Iraq was inevitable, nor did it demand immediate withdrawal. Tehran's overt position was moderate and one of cooperating with the inevitable. On a state level, the Iranians have not given the Americans any reason or justification to strike. · Try to control U.S. behavior in Iraq by making it clear that the path to stability in Iraq now runs through Tehran. The Shiite demonstrations are designed to drive home to the Americans that effective occupation of Iraq is dependent on the willingness of the Shiites to cooperate. The demonstrations are designed to show that the Shiites are capable of disrupting the situation dramatically and for an unpredictable period of time. This will force Washington to turn to Tehran. · Knowing that the United States is not about to withdraw from the region, pull Washington into a relationship in which it must manage its occupation of Iraq through Iran — while gradually increasing demands and setting expectations that will lead to the U.S. withdrawal. In other words, Iran will cooperate on a state-to-state basis on a variety of topics, ranging from weapons inspections and guarantees to intelligence cooperation on al Qaeda. As the United States overcomes al Qaeda and loses its interest in the region, Iran will be in a position to dominate. There are several problems with this strategy, which the Iranians know well or that are inherent in their situation: · The ability and willingness of the Iraqi Shiites to maintain their current stance might be limited economically or politically. They might not enjoy the role Iran has nominated them for or, alternatively, the United States might succeed in bribing them to quiescence. · The assumption that the United States does not intend to use main force to crush the Shiite rising is probably true — but not certain. Iran could find itself playing a very bad hand. · The Iranians are going to have to make substantial and difficult concessions to the United States on a state level. If the policy goes awry, they will have given away much for little. · The internal politics of Tehran are so complex that it is difficult to execute long-term strategies, no matter how rational. The complexity of this strategy is enormous and extends over a long period of time. Washington is better able than Tehran to play a long hand. These are all excellent reasons for Iran not to pursue the strategy outlined above. The only thing to recommend it is that Tehran really doesn't have a better plan. The U.S. occupation of Iraq and the clear intention to use that occupation to force Iran to behave in a different manner than it has leaves Tehran with the choice of resistance or compliance. Since neither is a satisfactory choice for Iran, the most rational move is to attempt both at the same time. For the moment, this has introduced an element of complexity into the American position. The most important variable, not yet known, is the staying power of the Shiites. This could dissipate in a few days without any help from Iran. Or it could dissipate only after Iran intervenes, leading to an ongoing dependency Washington does not want to have. Therefore, the question of the moment is what is the U.S. intelligence read on the Shiites and their long-term behavior and whether this intelligence will be more reliable than the intelligence — at least that which was made public — prior to the war in Iraq. This is a case where an intelligence failure that is noncatastrophic still can lead the United States into substantial strategic complexities.

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