On Geopolitics

The Unnoticed Alignment: Iran and the United States in Iraq

11 MINS READNov 19, 2003 | 22:25 GMT
Iranian President Mohammad Khatami did something very interesting Nov. 17: He announced that Iran recognized the Iraqi Governing Council in Baghdad. He said specifically, "We recognize the Iraqi Governing Council and we believe it is capable, with the Iraqi people, of managing the affairs of the country and taking measures leading toward independence." Khatami also commented on the agreement made by U.S. Administrator Paul Bremer and the IGC to transfer power to an Iraqi government by June: "The consecration of this accord will help with the reconstruction and security in Iraq," This is pretty extraordinary stuff. The IGC is an invention of the United States. The president of Iran has now recognized the IGC as the legitimate government of Iraq, and he has also declared Iran's support for the timetable for transferring power to the IGC. In effect, the U.S. and Iranian positions on Iraq have now converged. The alignment is reminiscent of the Sino-U.S. relationship in the early 1970s: Despite absolute ideological differences on which neither side is prepared to compromise, common geopolitical interests have forced both sides to collaborate with one another. As with Sino-U.S. relations, alignment is a better word than alliance. These two countries are not friends, but history and geography have made them partners. We would say that this is unexpected, save that STRATFOR expected it. On Sept. 2, 2003, we published a weekly analysis titled An Unlikely Alliance, in which we argued that a U.S.-Iranian alignment was the only real solution for the United States in Iraq — and would represent the fulfillment of an historical dream for Iran. What is interesting from our point of view (having suitably congratulated ourselves) is the exceptionally quiet response of the global media to what is, after all, a fairly extraordinary evolution of events. The media focus on — well, media events. When Nixon went to China, the visit was deliberately framed as a massive media event. Both China and the United States wanted to emphasize the shift in alignment, to both the Soviet Union and their own publics. In this case, neither the United States nor Iran wants attention focused on this event. For Washington, aligning with a charter member of the "axis of evil" poses significant political problems; for Tehran, aligning with the "Great Satan" poses similar problems. Both want alignment, but neither wants to make it formal at this time, and neither wants to draw significant attention to it. For the media, the lack of a photo op means that nothing has happened. Therefore, except for low-key reporting by some wire services, Khatami's statement has been generally ignored, which is fine by Washington and Tehran. In fact, on the same day that Khatami made the statement, the news about Iran focused on the country's nuclear weapons program. We christen thee, stealth geopolitics. Let's review the bidding here. When the United States invaded Iraq, the expectation was that the destruction of Iraq's conventional forces and the fall of Baghdad would end resistance. It was expected that there would be random violence, some resistance and so forth, but there was no expectation that there would be an organized, sustained guerrilla war, pre-planned by the regime and launched almost immediately after the fall of Baghdad. The United States felt that it had a free hand to shape and govern Iraq as it saw fit. The great debate was over whether the Department of State or Defense would be in charge of Baghdad's water works. Washington was filled with all sorts of plans and planners who were going to redesign Iraq. The dream did not die easily or quickly: Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was denying the existence of a guerrilla war in Iraq as late as early July, more than two months after it had begun. Essentially, Washington and reality diverged in May and June. Fantasy was followed by a summer of paralysis. The United States had not prepared for a guerrilla war in Iraq, and it had no plan for fighting such a war. Search-and-destroy operations were attempted, but these never had a chance of working, since tactical intelligence against the guerrillas was virtually non-existent. All it did was stir up even more anti-American feeling than was already there. The fact was that the United States was not going to be in a position to put down a guerrilla war without allies: It had neither the manpower nor the intimate knowledge of the country and society needed to defeat even a small guerrilla movement that was operating in its own, well-known terrain. At the same time, for all its problems, the situation in Iraq was not nearly as desperate as it would appear. Most of the country was not involved in the guerrilla war. It was essentially confined to the Sunni Triangle — a fraction of Iraq's territory — and to the minority Sunni group. The majority of Iraqis, Shiites and Kurds, not only were not involved in the guerrilla movement but inherently opposed to it. Both communities had suffered greatly under the Baathist government, which was heavily Sunni. The last thing they wanted to see was a return of Saddam Hussein's rule. However, being opposed to the guerrillas did not make the Shiites, in particular, pro-American. They had their own interests: The Shiites in Iraq wanted to control the post-Hussein government. Another era of Sunni control would have been disastrous for them. For the Shiites — virtually regardless of faction — taking control of Iraq was a priority. It is not fair to say that Iran simply controlled the Iraqi Shiites; there are historical tensions between the two groups. It is fair to say, however, that Iranian intelligence systematically penetrated and organized the Shiites during Hussein's rule and that Iran provided safe haven for many of Iraq's Shiite leaders. That means, obviously, that Tehran has tremendous and decisive influence in Iraq at this point — which means that the goals of Iraqi Shiites must coincide with Iranian national interests. In this case, they do. Iran has a fundamental interest in a pro-Iranian, or at least genuinely neutral, Iraq. The only way to begin creating that is with a Shiite-controlled government. With a Shiite-controlled government, the traditional Iraqi threat disappears and Iran's national security is tremendously enhanced. But the logic goes further: Iraq is the natural balance to Iran — and if Iraq is neutralized, Iran becomes the pre-eminent power in the Persian Gulf. Once the United States leaves the region — and in due course, the United States will leave — Iran will be in a position to dominate the region. No other power or combination of powers could block it without Iraqi support. Iran, therefore, has every reason to want to see an evolution that leads to a Shiite government in Iraq. Washington now has an identical interest. The United States does not have the ability or appetite to suppress the Sunni rising in perpetuity, nor does it have an interest in doing so. The U.S. interest is in destroying al Qaeda. Washington therefore needs an ally that has an intrinsic interest in fighting the guerrilla war and the manpower to do it. That means the Iraqi Shiites — and that means alignment with Iran. Bremer's assignment is to speed the transfer of power to the IGC. In a formal sense, this is a genuine task, but in a practical sense, transferring power to the IGC means transferring it to the Shiites. Not only do they represent a majority within the IGC, but when it comes time to raise an Iraqi army to fight the guerrillas, that army is going to be predominantly Shiite. That is not only a demographic reality but a political one as well — the Shiites will insist on dominating the new army. They are not going to permit a repeat of the Sunni domination. Therefore, Bremer's mission is to transfer sovereignty to the IGC, which means the transfer of sovereignty to the Shiites. From this, the United States ultimately gets a force in Iraq to fight the insurrection, the Iraqi Shiites get to run Iraq and the Iranians secure their Western frontier. On a broader, strategic scale, the United States splits the Islamic world — not down the middle, since Shiites are a minority — but still splits it. Moreover, under these circumstances, the Iranians are motivated to fight al Qaeda (a movement they have never really liked anyway) and can lend their not-insignificant intelligence capabilities to the mix. The last real outstanding issue is Iran's nuclear capability. Iran obviously would love to be a nuclear power in addition to being a regional hegemon. That would be sweet. However, it isn't going to happen, and the Iranians know that. It won't happen because Israel cannot permit it to happen. Any country's politics are volatile, and Iran in ten years could wind up with a new government and with values that, from Israel's point of view, are dangerous. Combine that with nuclear weapons, and it could mean the annihilation of Israel. Therefore, Israel would destroy Iran's nuclear capabilities — with nuclear strikes if necessary — before they become operational. To be more precise, Israel would threaten to destroy Iran's capabilities, which would put the United States in a tough position. An Israeli nuclear strike on Iran would be the last thing Washington needs. Therefore, the United States would be forced to take out Iran's facilities with American assets in the region — better a non-nuclear U.S. attack than an Israeli nuclear attack. Thus, the United States is telling Iran that it does not actually have the nuclear option it thinks it has. The Iranians, for their part, are telling the United States that they know Washington doesn't want a strike by either Israel or the U.S. forces. That means that the Iranians are using their nuclear option to extract maximum political concessions from the United States. It is in Tehran's interest to maximize the credibility of the country's nuclear program without crossing a line that would force an Israeli response and a pre-emptive move by the United States. The Iranians are doing that extremely skillfully. The United States, for its part, is managing the situation effectively as well. The nuclear issue is not the pivot. The alignment represents a solution to both U.S. and Iranian needs. However, in the long run, the Iranians are the major winners. When it is all over, they get to dominate the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula. That upsets the regional balance of power completely and is sending Saudi leaders into a panic. The worst-case scenario for Saudi Arabia is, of course, an Iranian-dominated region. It is also not a great outcome for the United States, since it has no interest in any one power dominating the region either. But the future is the future, and now is now. "Now" means the existence of a guerrilla war that the United States cannot fight on its own. This alignment solves that dilemma. We should remember that the United States has a history of improbable alliances that caused problems later. Consider the alliance with the Soviet Union in World War II that laid the groundwork for the Cold War: It solved one problem, then created another. The United States historically has worked that way. Thus, Washington is not going to worry about the long run until later. But in the short run, the U.S.-Iranian alignment is the most important news since the Sept. 11 attacks. It represents a triumph of geopolitics over principle on both sides, which is what makes it work: Since both sides are betraying fundamental principles, neither side is about to call the other on it. They are partners in this from beginning to end. What is fascinating is that this is unfolding without any secrecy whatsoever, yet is not being noticed by anyone. Since neither country is particularly proud of the deal, neither country is advertising it. And since it is not being advertised, the media are taking no notice. Quite impressive.
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