Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia

MIN READJun 3, 2004 | 22:17 GMT

The United States has fully entered the fourth phase of the Iraq campaign. The first phase consisted of the invasion of Iraq and the fall of Baghdad. The second was the phase in which the United States believed that it had a free hand in Iraq. It ended roughly July 1, 2003. The third phase was the period of commitment to control events in Iraq, intense combat with the Sunni guerrillas and collaboration with the Shia in Iraq and the Iranians. The fourth phase began in April with the negotiated settlement in Al Fallujah, and became official this week with the formation of the interim Iraqi government. The new government represents the culmination of a process that began during the April uprising by Muqtada al-Sadr — and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's unwillingness to intervene to stop the fighting and the kidnappings. Al-Sistani's behavior caused the Bush administration to reconsider a strategic principle that had governed U.S. strategy in Iraq since July 2003: the assumption that the United States could not afford to alienate al-Sistani and the Shiite community and remain in Iraq. The problem was that the understanding the United States thought it had with the Shia was very different from the one the Shia thought they had with the United States. It would take a microscope to figure out how the disconnect occurred and how it widened into an abyss, but the basic outlines are obvious. Al-Sistani believed that by controlling the Shia during the Sunni Ramadan offensive of October-November 2003, the Shia had entered into an agreement with the United States that the sovereign government of Iraq would pass into Shiite hands as rapidly as possible. Whether the United States had a different understanding — or given its intelligence that the Sunni rebellion had been broken — the fact was that by January, the United States was backing off the deal. In pressing for an interim government selected by the United States and containing heavy Sunni and Kurdish representation, and by putting off direct elections for at least a year, the United States let al-Sistani know that he was not getting what he wanted. Al-Sistani first transmitted his unhappiness through several channels, including Ahmed Chalabi. He then called for mass demonstrations. When that did not work, he maneuvered al-Sadr into rising against the Americans at the same time as the Sunnis launched an offensive west of Baghdad, particularly in Al Fallujah. Al-Sistani's goal was to demonstrate that the United States was utterly dependent on the Shia and that it had better change its thinking about the future Iraqi government. Al-Sistani badly miscalculated. The United States did not conclude that it needed a deal with the Shia. It concluded instead that the Shia — including Chalabi and al-Sistani — were completely undependable allies. By striking at a moment of extreme vulnerability, the Shia crippled the U.S. Defense Department faction that had argued not only in favor of Chalabi but also in favor of alignment with the Shia. Instead, the CIA and State Department, which had argued that the Shiite alignment was a mistake, now argued — convincingly — that al-Sistani was maneuvering the United States into a position of complete dependency, and that the only outcome would be the surrender of power to the Shia, whose interests lay with Iran, not the United States. Following the al-Sadr rising, and al-Sistani's attempt to maneuver the United States into simultaneously protecting al-Sistani from al-Sadr and being condemned by al-Sistani for doing it, the defenders of the Shiite strategy were routed. A fourth strategy emerged, in which the United States is trying to maintain balanced relationships with Sunnis and Shia, while currently tilting toward the Sunnis. Al Fallujah is the great symbol of this. The United States negotiated with its mortal enemy, the Sunnis, and conceded control of the city to them. What would have been utterly unthinkable during the third phase from July to March became logical and necessary in April and May. The United States is now speaking to virtually all Iraqi factions, save the foreign jihadists linked to al Qaeda. Al-Sistani has gone from being the pivot of U.S. policy in Iraq, to being a competitor for U.S. favor. It is no accident that Chalabi was publicly destroyed by the CIA over the past few weeks, or that the new Iraqi government gives no significant posts to al-Sistani supporters — and that Shia are actually underrepresented. The United States has recognized that it will not be able to defeat the Sunni insurgents in war without becoming utterly dependent on the Shia for stabilizing the south. Since the United States does not have sufficient force available in either place to suppress both a Sunni and a Shiite rising — and since it has lost all confidence in the Shiite leadership — logic has it that it needs to move toward ending the counterinsurgency. That is a political process requiring the United States to recognize the guerrillas linked to the Saddam Hussein military and intelligence service as a significant political force in Iraq, and to use that relationship as a lever with which to control the Shia. That is what happened in Al Fallujah; that is what is happening — with much more subtlety — in the interim government, and that is what will be playing out for the rest of the summer. In essence, in order to gain control of the military situation, the United States has redefined the politics of Iraq. Rather than allowing the Shia to be the swing player in the three-man game, the United States is trying to maneuver itself into being the swingman. Suddenly, as the war becomes gridlocked, the politics have become extraordinarily fluid. Every ball is in the air — and it is the United States that has become the wild card. Changes and Consequences The redefinition of the U.S. role in Iraq has major international consequences. The U.S. relationship with Iran reached its high point during the Bam earthquake in December 2003. The United States offered aid, and the Iranians accepted. The United States offered to send Elizabeth Dole (and a player to be named later), and this was rejected by Iran. Iran — viewing the situation in Iraq and the U.S. relationship with the Shia, and realizing that the United States needed Iranian help against al Qaeda — sought to rigorously define its relationship with the Americans on its own terms. It thought it had the whip hand and was using it. The United States struggled with its relationship with Iran from January until March, accepting its importance, but increasingly uneasy with the views being expressed by Tehran. By April, the United States had another important consideration on its plate: the deteriorating situation in Saudi Arabia. The United States was the primary cause of that deterioration. It had forced the Saudi government to crack down on al Qaeda in the kingdom, and the radical Islamists were striking back at the regime. An incipient civil war was under way and intensifying. Contrary to myth, the United States did not intervene in Iraq over oil — anyone looking at U.S. behavior over the past year can see the desultory efforts on behalf of the Iraqi oil industry — but the United States had to be concerned about the security of oil shipments from Saudi Arabia. If those were disrupted, the global economy would go reeling. It was one thing to put pressure on the Saudis; it was another thing to accept a civil war as the price of that pressure. And it was yet another thing to think calmly about the fall of the House of Saud. But taking Saudi oil off the market was not acceptable. The Saudis could not stop shipping oil voluntarily. They needed the income too badly. That was never a risk. However, for the first time since World War II, the disruption of Saudi oil supplies because of internal conflict or external force became conceivable. The fact was that Saudi Arabia had a large Shiite population that lived around the oil shipment points. If those shipment points were damaged or became inaccessible, all hell would break loose in the global economy. The Iranians had a number of mutually supporting interests. First, they wanted a neutral or pro-Iranian Iraq in order to make another Iran-Iraq war impossible. For this, they needed a Shiite-dominated government. Second, they were interested in redressing the balance of power in the Islamic world between Sunnis and Shia, in particular with the Saudi Wahhabis. Finally, they wanted — in the long run — to become the dominant power in the Persian Gulf. Their relationship with the United States in Iraq was the linchpin for all of this. The Saudis, having already felt the full force of American fury — and now trapped between them and their own radicals — faced another challenge. If the U.S. policy in Iraq remained on track, the power of Iran and the Shia would surge through the region. The Saudis had faced a challenge from the Shia right after the Khomeni revolution in Iran. They did not enjoy it, but they did have the full backing of the United States. Now they are in a position where they faced an even more intense challenge, and the United States might well stay neutral or, even worse, back the challenge. If the Shia in Saudi Arabia rose with the backing of Iran and a Shiite-dominated Iraq, the Saudi government would crumble. From the Saudi point of view, they might be able to contain the radical Islamists using traditional tribal politics and payoffs, but facing the Wahhabis and the Shia at the same time would be impossible. The third-phase policy of entente between the United States and the Shiite-Iranian bloc seemed to guarantee a Shiite rising in Saudi Arabia in the not-too-distant future. As U.S.-Iranian relations became increasingly strained during the winter, the Saudis increased their cooperation with the United States. They also made it clear to the Americans that they were in danger of losing their balance as the pressures on them mounted. The United States liked what it saw in the Saudi intensification of the war effort, even in the face of increased resistance. The United States did not like what it saw in Tehran, concerned that the relationship there was getting out of hand. Finally, in April, it became completely disenchanted with the Shiite leadership of Iraq. There were therefore two layers to the U.S. policy shift. The first was internal to Iraq. The second had to do with increased concerns about the security of oil shipments from the kingdom if the Iranians encouraged a rising in Saudi Arabia. The United States did not lighten up at all on demanding full cooperation on al Qaeda. The Saudis supplied that. But the United States did not want oil shipments disrupted. In the end, the survival or demise of the House of Saud does not matter to the United States — except to the degree that it affects the availability of oil. The United States has to balance the pressure it puts on Saudi Arabia to fight al Qaeda against the threat of oil disruption. It cannot lighten up on either. From the American point of view, the right balance is a completely committed Saudi Arabia and freely flowing oil. The United States had moved much closer to the former, and it now needed to ensure the latter. Jerking the rug out from under the Iranians and the Shia was the U.S. answer. Oil does not cost more than $40 a barrel because of China. It costs more than $40 a barrel because of fears that Saudi oil really could come off the market, and doubt that the complex U.S. maneuver can work. The obvious danger is an Iranian-underwritten rising in southern Iraq that spills over into Saudi Arabia. The United States has shut off its support for such an event, but the Iranians have an excellent intelligence organization with a strong covert capability. They are capable of answering in their own way. The future at this moment is in the hands of Tehran and An Najaf. This is the point at which the degree of control the Iranians have over the Iraqi Shiite leadership will become clear. The Iranians obviously are not happy with the trends that have emerged over the past month. Their best lever is in Iraq. The Iraqi Shia are aware that the United States is increasingly limber and unpredictable — and that it has more options than it had two months ago. The Iraqi Shia are in danger of being trapped between Washington and Tehran. It is extremely important to note that al-Sistani today tentatively endorsed the new government, clearly uneasy at the path events were taking. Therefore there are two questions: First, will the Iranians become more aggressive, abandoning their traditional caution? Second, can they get the Iraqi Shiite leaders to play their game, or will the old rift between Qom and An Najaf (the Iranian and Iraqi Shiite holy cities) emerge once again as the Shia scramble to get back into the American game? The problem the Americans have is this: Wars are very complicated undertakings that require very simple politics. The more complicated the politics, the more difficult it is to prosecute a war. The politics of this war have become extraordinarily complicated. The complexity is almost mind-boggling. Fighting a war in this environment is tough at best — and this is not the best. What the United States must achieve out of all of this maneuvering is a massive simplification of the war goals. This is getting way too complicated.

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