An Unlikely Alliance
MIN READSep 2, 2003 | 23:00 GMT
The death of Shiite Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), appears to have exacerbated the turmoil in Iraq. In fact, it opens the door to some dramatic shifts that might help stabilize the U.S. position in Iran. Indeed, it might even lead to a fundamental redrawing of the geopolitical maps of the region — as dramatic as the U.S.-Chinese alignment against the Soviet Union in the 1970s. To understand what is happening, we must note two important aspects of the al-Hakim affair. First, though far from being pro-American, al-Hakim was engaged in limited cooperation with the United States, including — through SCIRI — participating in the U.S.-sponsored Iraq Governing Council. Second, upon his death, Iran announced a three-day mourning period in his honor. Al-Hakim, who had lived in exile in Iran during much of Saddam Hussein's rule in Baghdad, was an integral part of the Shiite governing apparatus — admired and loved in Iran. We therefore have two facts. First, al-Hakim was engaged in limited but meaningful collaboration with the United States, which appears to be why he was killed. Second, he was intimately connected to Iranian ruling circles, and not just to those circles that Americans like to call "reformers." If we stop and think about it, these two facts would appear incompatible, but in reality they reveal a growing movement toward alignment between the United States and Iran. The United States has realized that it cannot pacify Iraq on its own. One proposal, floated by the State Department, calls for a United Nations force — under U.S. command — to take control of Iraq. This raises three questions. First, why would any sane country put its forces at risk — under U.S. command, no less — to solve America's problems if it doesn't have to? Second, what would additional outside forces, as unfamiliar with Iraq as U.S. forces are, add to the mix, save more confusion? Finally, what price would the United States have to pay for U.N. cooperation; for instance, would the U.N. presence place restrictions on U.S. operations against al Qaeda? Another proposal, floated by Defense Advisory Board Chairman Richard Perle, suggests that the way out is to turn Iraq over to Iraqis as quickly as possible rather than prolonging a U.S. occupation. The problem with Perle's proposal is that it assumes a generic Iraq, unattached to any subgrouping — religious, ethnic or ideological — that not only is ready to take the reins, but is capable of governing. In other words, Perle's proposal would turn Iraq over to whom? Putting the Kurdish issue aside, the fundamental fault line running through Iraqi society is the division between Sunni and Shiite. The Shiite majority dominates the area south of Baghdad. The Sunni minority, which very much includes Hussein and most of the Baath Party's national apparatus, spent the past generation brutalizing the Shiites, and Hussein's group also spent that time making certain that Sunnis who were not part of their tribe were marginalized. Today, Iraq is a fragmented entity where the center of gravity, the Baath Party, has been shattered and there is no substitute for it. However, embedded in Perle's proposal is a simple fact. If there is a cohesive group in Iraq — indeed a majority group — it is the Shiites. Although ideologically and tribally fragmented, the Shiites of Iraq are far better organized than U.S. intelligence reports estimated before the war. This is due to the creation of a clandestine infrastructure, sponsored by Iranian intelligence, following the failure of U.S.-encouraged Shiite uprisings in the 1990s. While Washington was worried about the disintegration of Iraq and the growth of Iranian power, Tehran was preparing for the day that Hussein's regime would either collapse or be destroyed by the United States. As a result, and somewhat to the surprise of U.S. intelligence, organizations were in place in Iraq's Shiite regions that were able to maintain order and exercise control after the war. British authorities realized this early on and tried to transfer power from British forces in Basra to local control, much to U.S. displeasure. Initially, Washington viewed the Iranian-sponsored organization of the Shiite regions as a threat to its control of Iraq. The initial U.S. perception was that the Shiites, being bitterly anti-Hussein, would respond enthusiastically to their liberation by U.S. forces. In fact, the response was cautious and sullen. Officials in Washington also assumed that the collapse of the Iraqi army would mean the collapse of Sunni resistance. Under this theory, the United States would have an easy time in the Sunni regions — it already had excellent relations in the Kurdish regions — but would face a challenge from Iran in the south. The game actually played out very differently. The United States did not have an easy time in the Sunni triangle. To the contrary: A clearly planned guerrilla war kicked off weeks after the conquest of Baghdad and has continued since. Had the rising spread to the Shiite regions, or had the Shiites launched an intifada with massed demonstrations, the U.S. position in Iraq would have become enormously more difficult, if not untenable. The Shiites staged some protests to demonstrate their capabilities to the United States, but they did not rise en masse. In general, they have contented themselves with playing a waiting game — intensifying their organization in the region, carrying out some internal factional struggles, but watching and waiting. Most interesting, rather than simply rejecting the U.S. occupation, they simultaneously called for its end while participating in it. The key goes back to Iran and to the Sunni-Shiite split within the Islamic world. Iran has a geopolitical problem, one it has had for centuries: It faces a threat from the north, through the Caucasus, and a threat from the west, from whatever entity occupies the Tigris and Euphrates basin. When both threats are active, as they were for much of the Cold War, Iran must have outside support, and that support frequently turns into domination. Iran's dream is that it might be secure on both fronts. That rarely happens. The end of the Cold War has created an unstable area in the Caucasus that actually helps secure Iran's interests. The Caucasus might be in chaos, but there is no great imperial power about to push down into Iran. Moreover, at about the same time, the threat posed by Iraq abated after the United States defeated it and neutralized its armed forces during Desert Storm. This created a period of unprecedented security for Iran that Tehran exploited by working to reconstruct its military and moving forward on nuclear weapons. However, Iran's real interest is not simply Iraq's neutralization; that could easily change. Its real interest is in dominating Iraq. An Iranian-dominated Iraq would mean two things: First, the only threat to Iran would come from the north and Iran could concentrate on blocking that threat; second, it would make Iran the major native regional power in the Persian Gulf. Therefore, were Iranian-sponsored and sympathetic Shiite groups to come to power in Iraq, it would represent a massive geopolitical coup for the United States. Initially, this was the opposite of anything the United States wanted. One of the reasons for invading Iraq was to be able to control Iran and its nuclear capability. But the guerrilla war in the north has created a new strategic reality for Washington. The issue at the moment is not how to project power throughout the region, but how to simply pacify Iraq. The ambitions of April have given way to the realities of September. The United States needs a native force in Iraq to carry the brunt of the pacification program. The Shiites, unlike the United Nations, already would deliver a fairly pacified south and probably would enjoy giving some payback to the Sunnis in the north. Certainly, they are both more likely to achieve success and more willing to bear the burden of pacification than is the United States, let alone any U.N. member willing to send troops. It is not, at the moment, a question of what the United States wants; it is a question of what it can have. The initial idea was that the United States would sponsor a massive rising of disaffected youth in Iran. In fact, U.S. intelligence supported dissident university students in a plan to do just that. However, Iranian security forces crushed the rebellion effortlessly — and with it any U.S. hopes of forcing regime change in Iran through internal means. If this were to happen, it would not happen in a time frame relative to Washington's problems in Iraq or problems with al Qaeda. Therefore, the Iranian regime, such as it is, is the regime the United States must deal with. And that regime holds the key to the Iraqi Shiites. The United States has been negotiating both overtly and covertly with Iran on a range of issues. There has been enough progress to keep southern Iraq quiet, but not enough to reach a definitive breakthrough. The issue has not been Iranian nuclear power. Certainly, the Iranians have been producing a nuclear weapon. They made certain that inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency saw weapons-grade uranium during an inspection in recent days. It is an important bargaining chip. But as with North Korea, Iranian leaders know that nuclear weapons are more valuable as a bargaining chip than as a reality. Asymmetry leads to eradication of nuclear threats. Put less pretentiously, Tehran must assume that the United States — or Israel — will destroy any nuclear capability before it becomes a threat. Moreover, if it has nuclear capability, what would it do with it? Even as a deterrent, retaliation would lead to national annihilation. The value of nuclear weapons in this context is less real than apparent — and therefore more valuable in negotiations than deployment. Tehran has hinted several times that its nuclear program is negotiable regarding weapons. Officials also have indicated by word and deed to the United States that they are prepared to encourage Iraqi Shiites to cooperate with the U.S. occupation. The issue on the table now is whether the Shiites will raise the level of cooperation from passive to active — whether they will move from not doing harm to actively helping to suppress the Sunni rising. This is the line that they are considering crossing — and the issue is not only whether they cross, but whether the United States wants them to cross. Obviously, the United States needs help. On the other hand, the Iranian price is enormous. Domination of Iraq means enormous power in the Gulf region. In the past, Saudi Arabia's sensibilities would have mattered; today, the Saudis matter less. U.S. leaders understand that making such an agreement means problems down the road. On the other hand, the United States has some pretty major problems right now anyway. Moreover — and this is critical — the Sunni-Shiite fault line defines the Islamic world. Splitting Islam along those lines, fomenting conflict within that world, certainly would divert attention from the United States: Iran working against al Qaeda would have more than marginal value, but not, however, as much as Saudi Arabia pulling out the stops. Against the background of the U.S.-Iranian negotiation is the idea that the Saudis, terrified of a triumphant Iran, will panic and begin crushing the extreme Wahhabis in the kingdom. This has delayed a U.S. decision, as has the legitimate fear that a deal with Iran would unleash the genie. But of course, the other fear is that if Iran loses patience, it will call the Shiite masses into the streets and there will be hell to pay in Iraq. The death of SCIRI leader al-Hakim, therefore, represents a break point. Whether it was Shiite dissidents or Sunnis that killed him, his death costs the Iranians a key ally and drives home the risks they are running with delay. They are vulnerable in Iraq. This opens the door for Tehran to move forward in a deal with the United States. Washington needs to make something happen soon. This deal might never be formalized. Neither Iranian nor American politics would easily swallow an overt alliance. On the other hand, there is plenty of precedent for U.S.-Iranian cooperation on a covert level. Of course, this would be fairly open and obvious cooperation — a major mobilization of Shiite strength in Iraq on behalf of the United States — regardless of the rhetoric. Currently, this seems to be the most likely evolution of events: Washington gets Tehran's help in putting down the Sunnis. The United States gets a civil war in the Muslim world. The United States gets Iran to dial back its nuclear program. Iran gets to dominate Iraq. The United States gets all the benefits in the near term. Iran gets its historical dream. If Roosevelt could side with Stalin against Hitler, and Nixon with Mao against Brezhnev, this collaboration certainly is not without precedence in U.S. history. But boy, would it be a campaign issue — in both countries.