By George Friedman
The Iraq war has turned into a duel between the United States and Iran. For the United States, the goal has been the creation of a generally pro-American coalition government in Baghdad — representing Iraq's three major ethnic communities. For Iran, the goal has been the creation of either a pro-Iranian government in Baghdad or, alternatively, the division of Iraq into three regions, with Iran dominating the Shiite south. The United States has encountered serious problems in creating the coalition government. The Iranians have been primarily responsible for that. With the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in June, when it appeared that the Sunnis would enter the political process fully, the Iranians used their influence
with various Iraqi Shiite factions to disrupt that process by launching attacks on Sunnis and generally destabilizing the situation. Certainly, Sunnis contributed to this, but for much of the past year, it has been the Shia, supported by Iran, that have been the primary destabilizing force. So long as the Iranians continue to follow this policy, the U.S. strategy cannot succeed. The difficulty of the American plan is that it requires the political participation of three main ethnic groups that are themselves politically fragmented
. Virtually any substantial group can block the success of the strategy by undermining the political process. The Iranians, however, appear to be in a more powerful position than the Americans. So long as they continue to support Shiite groups within Iraq, they will be able to block the U.S. plan. Over time, the theory goes, the Americans will recognize the hopelessness of the undertaking and withdraw, leaving Iran to pick up the pieces. In the meantime, the Iranians will increasingly be able to dominate the Shiite community and consolidate their hold over southern Iraq. The game appears to go to Iran. Americans are extremely sensitive to the difficulties the United States faces in Iraq. Every nation-state has a defining characteristic, and that of the United States is manic-depression, cycling between insanely optimistic plans and total despair. This national characteristic tends to blind Americans to the situation on the other side of the hill. Certainly, the Bush administration vastly underestimated the difficulties of occupying Iraq — that was the manic phase. But at this point, it could be argued that the administration again is not looking over the other side of the hill at the difficulties the Iranians might be having. And it is useful to consider the world from the Iranian point of view. The Foundation of Foreign Policy
It is important to distinguish between the rhetoric and the reality of Iranian foreign policy. As a general principle, this should be done with all countries. As in business, rhetoric is used to shape perceptions and attempt to control the behavior of others. It does not necessarily reveal one's true intentions or, more important, one's capabilities. In the classic case of U.S. foreign policy, Franklin Roosevelt publicly insisted that the United States did not intend to get into World War II while U.S. and British officials were planning to do just that. On the other side of the equation, the United States, during the 1950s, kept asserting that its goal was to liberate Eastern Europe from the Soviet Union, when in fact it had no plans, capabilities or expectations of doing so. This does not mean the claims were made frivolously — both Roosevelt and John Foster Dulles had good reasons for posturing as they did — but it does mean that rhetoric is not a reliable indicator of actions. Thus, the purple prose of the Iranian leadership cannot be taken at face value. To get past the rhetoric, let's begin by considering Iran's objective geopolitical position. Historically, Iran has faced three enemies. Its oldest enemy was to the west: the Arab/Sunni threat, against which it has struggled for millennia. Russia, to the north, emerged as a threat in the late 19th century, occupying northern Iran during and after World War II. The third enemy has worn different faces but has been a recurring threat since the time of Alexander the Great: a distant power that has intruded into Persian affairs. This distant foreign power — which has at times been embodied by both the British and the Americans — has posed the greatest threat to Iran. And when the element of a distant power is combined with one of the other two traditional enemies, the result is a great global or regional power whose orbit or influence Iran cannot escape. To put that into real terms, Iran can manage, for example, the chaos called Afghanistan, but it cannot manage a global power that is active in Iraq and Afghanistan simultaneously. For the moment, Russia is contained. There is a buffer zone of states between Iran and Russia that, at present, prevents Russian probes. But what Iran fears is a united Iraq under the influence or control of a global power like the United States. In 1980, the long western border of Iran was attacked by Iraq, with only marginal support from other states, and the effect on Iran was devastating. Iran harbors a rational fear of attack from that direction, which — if coupled with American power — could threaten Iranian survival. Therefore, Iran sees the American plan to create a pro-U.S. government in Baghdad as a direct threat to its national interests. Now, the Iranians supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003; they wanted to see their archenemy, former President Saddam Hussein, deposed. But they did not want to see him replaced by a pro-American regime. Rather, the Iranians wanted one of two outcomes: the creation of a pro-Iranian government dominated by Iraqi Shia (under Iran's control), or the fragmentation of Iraq. A fragmented Iraq would have two virtues. It would prove no danger to Iran, and Iran likely would control or heavily influence southern Iraq, thus projecting its power from there throughout the Persian Gulf. Viewed this way, Iran's behavior in Iraq is understandable. A stable Iraq under U.S. influence represents a direct threat to Iran, while a fragmented or pro-Iranian Iraq does not. Therefore, the Iranians will do whatever they can to undermine U.S. attempts to create a government in Baghdad. Tehran can use its influence to block a government, but it cannot — on its own — create a pro-Iranian one. Therefore, Iran's strategy is to play spoiler and wait for the United States to tire of the unending conflict. Once the Americans leave, the Iranians can pick up the chips on the table. Whether it takes 10 years or 30, the Iranians assume that, in the end, they will win. None of the Arab countries in the region has the power to withstand Iran, and the Turks are unlikely to get into the game. The Unknown Variables
Logic would seem to favor the Iranians. But in the past, the Iranians have tried to be clever with great powers and, rather than trapping them, have wound up being trapped themselves. Sometimes they have simply missed other dimensions of the situation. For example, when the revolutionaries overthrew the Shah and created the Islamic Republic, the Iranians focused on the threat from the Americans, and another threat from the Soviets and their covert allies in Iran. But they took their eyes off Iraq — and that miscalculation not only cost them huge casualties and a decade of economic decay, but broke the self-confidence of the Iranian regime. The Iranians also have miscalculated on the United States. When the Islamic Revolution occurred, the governing assumption — not only in Iran but also in many parts of the world, including the United States — was that the United States was a declining power. It had, after all, been defeated in Vietnam and was experiencing declining U.S. military power and severe economic problems. But the Iranians massively miscalculated with regard to the U.S. position: In the end, the United States surged and it was the Soviets who collapsed. The Iranians do not have a sterling record in managing great powers, and especially in predicting the behavior of the United States. In large and small ways, they have miscalculated on what the United States would do and how it would do it. Therefore, like the Americans, the Iranians are deeply divided. There are those who regard the United States as a bumbling fool, all set to fail in Iraq. There are others who remember equally confident forecasts about other American disasters, and who see the United States as ruthless, cunning and utterly dangerous. These sentiments, then, divide into two policy factions. On the one side, there are those who see Bush's surge strategy
as an empty bluff. They point out that there is no surge, only a gradual buildup of troops, and that the number of troops being added is insignificant. They point to political divisions in Washington and argue that the time is ripe for Iran to go for it all. They want to force a civil war in Iraq, to at least dominate the southern region and take advantage of American weakness to project power in the Persian Gulf. The other side wonders whether the Americans are as weak as they appear, and also argues that exploiting a success in Iraq would be more dangerous and difficult than it appears. The United States has substantial forces in Iraq, and the response to Shiite uprisings along the western shore of the Persian Gulf would be difficult to predict. The response to any probe into Saudi Arabia certainly would be violent. We are not referring here to ideological factions, nor to radicals and moderates. Rather, these are two competing visions of the United States. One side wants to exploit American weakness; the other side argues that experience shows that American weakness can reverse itself unexpectedly and trap Iran in a difficult and painful position. It is not a debate about ends or internal dissatisfaction with the regime. Rather, it is a contest between audacity and caution. The Historical View
Over time — and this is not apparent from Iranian rhetoric — caution has tended to prevail. Except during the 1980s, when they supported an aggressive Hezbollah, the Iranians have been quite measured in their international actions. Following the war with Iraq, they avoided overt moves — and they even were circumspect after the fall of the Soviet Union, when opportunities presented themselves to Iran's north. After 9/11, the Iranians were careful not to provoke the United States: They offered landing rights for damaged U.S. aircraft and helped recruit Shiite tribes for the American effort against the Taliban. The rhetoric alternated between intense and vitriolic; the actions were more cautious. Even with the Iranian nuclear project, the rhetoric has been far more intense than the level of development seems to warrant. Rhetoric influences perceptions, and perceptions can drive responses. Therefore, the rhetoric should not be discounted as a driving factor in the geopolitical system. But the real debate in Iran is over what to do about Iraq. No one in Iran wants a pro-U.S. government in Baghdad, and blocking the emergence of such a government has a general consensus. But how far to go in trying to divide Iraq, creating a pro-Iranian government in Baghdad and projecting power in the region is a matter of intense debate. In fact, cautious behavior combined with extreme rhetoric still appears to be the default position in Tehran, with more adventurous arguments struggling to gain acceptance. The United States, for its part, is divided between the desire to try one more turn at the table to win it all and the fear that it is becoming hopelessly trapped. Iran is divided between a belief that the time to strike is now and a fear that counting the United States out is always premature. This is an engine that can, in due course, drive negotiations. Iran might be "evil" and the United States might be "Satan," but at the end of the day, international affairs involving major powers are governed not by rhetoric but by national interest. The common ground between the United States and Iran is that neither is certain it can achieve its real strategic interests. The Americans doubt they can create a pro-U.S. government in Baghdad, and Iran is not certain the United States is as weak as it appears to be. Fear and uncertainty are the foundations of international agreement, while hope and confidence fuel war. In the end, a fractured Iraq — an entity incapable of harming Iran, but still providing an effective buffer between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula — is emerging as the most viable available option.