Cut and Run from Self Destruction is just Common Sense

Henry C.K. Liu

Part I:  Fleeing Self Destruction is Common Sense
Part II: Looking to Syria and Iran for Help

Part III: The Situation in Iran

This article appeared in AToL on March 21, 2007

Notwithstanding the long Iran-Iraq War that lasted from 1980 to 1988 that ended with a stalemate, Tehran’s chief security concern since the fall of the Shah in 1979 is not with Iraq, but with belligerent US intentions toward the Islamic Republic itself. The view persists in Persian Tehran, as indeed it does also in Arabic Damascus, Riyadh, and even Cairo and in the capitals of all the Gulf state that after Iraq, their separate countries, for different reasons, with or without nuclear weapons ambitions, are destined to be subsequent targets on the US transformation hit list to complete the US agenda of imposing democracy in the entire region. Accordingly, Tehran can be expected to prepare for defending itself from possible militarized hostilities from either the US itself or its proxy regime in Iraq.

This view is based not on Iranian or Arab paranoia, but on official USpolicy declaration. On November 6, 2003, less than eight months after the invasion of Iraq, addressing the National Endowment for Democracy, a neo-conservative organization founded during the Reagan era, US President George W Bush, fresh from “catastrophic success” in war, sought to justify the predictably endless and unsustainably high cost in lives and money of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq by setting out the argument for the US war against Iraq no longer in terms of defense against a security threat to the US homeland, but as part of a proactive “global democratic revolution”. After failing to find weapons of mass destruction in post-war Iraq despite exhaustive search, the blood and money Bush was expending in that occupied land were being justified by the noble-sounding aim of promoting democracy in tribal Arab societies and in the Persian Islamic republic, notwithstanding that Iran’s democratically elected president, Mohammed Mossadegh, had been deposed in 1953 by the CIA to install the autocratic Shah to keep Iranian oil in Western hands.

Bush predicted that successful implant of a democratic government in Iraq would energize a global democratic revolution that would sweep away what the US alleges as “tyrannies from Cuba to North Korea”. Specifically, Bush proclaimed a new “forward strategy” for advancing freedom in the Middle East, declaring that “six decades of excusing and accommodating dictatorships there on the part of the US did nothing to make us safe, because stability cannot be purchased at liberty’s expense.” Even after the rout suffered by the Republicans in the 2006 mid-term Congressional elections when the disastrous US occupation of Iraq had been a major campaign issue, Bush continues to argue not only that US troops should not be withdrawn, but a new troop surge should be sent until democracy has been established in the region, which ironically confirmed the fact that the war itself did not foster democracy.  Democracy has to be enforced at gun point after the war.

<>Thus there are survival incentives in all capitals in Middle East and the GCC states (Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) and in Iran to ensure that US regime change policy does not succeed and that this geopolitical cancer called “democracy” be arrested within Iraq by insurgence therapy before it spreads throughout a region of Arab tribal societies and a Persian civilization that dates back to 1500 B.C.

For Iran, a stabilized Iraq under US control would act as a proxy belligerent against it, relieving the US from hesitation over the exorbitantly high direct cost of military action against a zealous enemy in the form of the Islam Republic of Iran with a population of 70 million, substantial oil wealth and a strategic location controlling Persian Gulf tanker traffic through the Strait of Hormuz. Iran has not forgotten the US tilt toward Iraq in the 8-year-long Iran-Iraq War that began in 1980 in which over a million combatants died and countless more wounded. It was the longest war in modern history where weapons were supplied to Iraq by France, and by both Cold War nemeses USSR and the US, while Iran was supplied by Israel, its mortal enemy, to prolong the war to bleed both combatants. Iran knows that in a war with the US, there would be help from unexpected sources to keep Iran fighting for years to wear down, if not defeat the US whose domestic politics cannot sustain a long limited war.

involvement in the Middle East

Current Middle East involvement by the Islamic Republic of Iran began in 1982 when Israel invaded Lebanon, prompting Iran, despite its by-then 3-year-old war with Iraq, to deploy its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to the Bekaa Valley to help the Lebanese Muslims fight against the Israel invasion, and to counter US support for Israeli aggression.

In July that year, operatives from the US-backed Lebanese Christian forces kidnap four Iranian diplomats, including the commander of the Revolutionary Guards in the Bekaa Valley and the Iranian charge d’affaires. That triggered a decade of retaliatory kidnappings in which dozens of Westerners were taken hostage by a network of resistance cells. The first hostage was David Dodge, a US citizen who was the acting president of the American University in Beirut. US officials alleged that operatives from the Iranian-backed Shi’ite group Hezbollah, based in Lebanon, was behind most of the kidnappings.

In April 1983, a suicide bomber rammed a pickup truck loaded with explosives into the US Embassy in Beirut. Seventeen US diplomats were among the 63 people killed, eight of whom were CIA operatives, including chief Middle East analyst Robert C. Ames and station chief Kenneth Haas. The Reagan administration again blamed Hezbollah, which it suspected was receiving financial and logistical support from Iran with assists from Syria.

In September 1983, a truck bomb again exploded outside the US Embassy annex in Beirut, killing 24 people, two of whom US military personnel. According to a 1999 US State Department report on terrorist organizations, elements of Hezbollah were “known or suspected to have been involved” in the bombing, not withstanding the oxymoronic nature of the two adjectives.

In October 1984, a suicide bomber detonated a truck full of explosives at a US Marine barracks at Beirut International Airport, killing 241 U.S. Marines and wounding more than 100 others. The soldiers were part of a contingent of 1,800 Marines that had been sent to Lebanon to help separate warring Lebanese factions. The incident led to the withdrawal of US troops from Lebanon.

In his September 2001 FRONTLINE Public Television interview conducted days after 9:11, former Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger said that the US still lacked “actual knowledge of who did the bombing” of the Marine barracks, but it suspected Hezbollah on deduction from motive.

Again in the same interview, Robert C. MacFarlane, national security advisor to President Ronald Reagan from 1983-85, told of US internal dilemma over the appropriate response: “In 1984, it was essentially the same disagreement [within the administration] ... over the use of force, and its impact on alienating moderate Muslim states. That led to paralysis in response to the attack on the embassy annex. Secretary [George] Shultz favored a very strong response with the Sixth Fleet, and Secretary Weinberger simply opposed it.”

In an attempt to end the Lebanese hostage crisis, US officials who believed that Iran-backed operatives of Hezbollah were responsible for the kidnappings, devised a covert plan. Iran was desperately running out of military supplies in its war with Iraq, and Congress had banned the sale of US arms to countries that it said sponsored terrorism, which included Iran. President Reagan was advised that a bargain could be struck: secret arms sales to Iran in exchange for hostages back to the US. The plan, when it was revealed to the public, was decried as a failure and anathema to standing US policy of refusing to negotiate with terrorists. In August 1985, the first consignment of arms, 100 anti-tank missiles provided by Israel, was sent to Iran. Hundreds more were sent the following month, fully paid for in cash by Iran. Three hostages were released as a result of the arms-for-hostages deal.

Since the funds from the arms sales to Iran were secretly and illegally funneled to the US-backed Contras fighting to overthrow the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua, the episode came to be known as the "Iran-Contra affair." It would become the biggest crisis in Ronald Reagan’s presidency, with details fully documented in the Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters.

In the same FRONTLINE interview, Robert Oakley, former US State Department coordinator for counterterrorism during the 1980’s said of the Beirut Embassy bombing: “It was primarily the Iranians; the Syrians were sort of a secondary player, if you will, a facilitator more than a principal. The Iranians wanted to drive us out of Lebanon. The Iranians also wanted to create a Hezbollah party, that is, a party based on the Shi’ite Islamic movement in Lebanon, which would be their tool for Islamizing Lebanon, hopefully turning it into an Islamic state similar to Iran. … We began to apply a series of pressures to states supporting terrorism. One was Iraq, and they stopped.”

In response to suspected Iranian involvement in causing US casualties in Lebanon, the US tilted towards Iraq. Donald Rumsfeld, as special envoy of President Reagan, was photographed on December 20, 1983 shaking hands with Saddam Hussein on the official visit. Declassified National Security Document 26 records that following further high-level policy review, Reagan issued National Security Decision Directive (NSDD) 114 dated November 26, 1983 concerning specific US policy toward the Iran-Iraq war. The directive reflected the administration’s priorities: calling for heightened regional military cooperation to defend oil facilities, and measures to improve US military capabilities in the Persian Gulf, and directing the secretaries of state and defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to take appropriate measures to respond to tensions in the area. It states: “Because of the real and psychological impact of a curtailment in the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf on the international economic system, we must assure our readiness to deal promptly with actions aimed at disrupting that traffic.” The document did not mention chemical, biological or nuclear weapons or Iraqi possession of them.

Document 28 records that soon thereafter, Donald Rumsfeld (who had served in various positions in the Nixon and Ford administrations, including as President Ford's defense secretary, and at this time headed the multinational pharmaceutical company G.D. Searle & Co.) was dispatched to the Middle East as a presidential envoy. Rumsfeld’s December 1983 tour of regional capitals included Baghdad, where he was to establish “direct contact between an envoy of President Reagan and President Saddam Hussein,” while emphasizing his personal “close relationship” with the US president. Document 31 records that Rumsfeld met with Saddam, and the two discussed regional issues of mutual interest, shared enmity toward Iran and Syria, and US efforts to find alternative routes to transport Iraqi oil; its facilities in the Persian Gulf having been shut down by Iran, and Iran’s ally, Syria, had cut off a pipeline that transported Iraqi oil through its territory. Rumsfeld made no reference to concerns for nuclear or chemical weapons, according to detailed notes on the meeting.  The US re-establish diplomatic relations with Iraq, Iran’s warring enemy, four years into the Iran-Iraq war, in November 1984, which had been severed 17 years earlier after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Yet less than two decades later, Iraq was invaded in March 2003 in a new war orchestrated by Rumsfeld, again as Secretary of Defense under Bush, on the ground, among others, that it was a terrorist-sponsoring state in possession of weapons of mass destruction, including chemical weapons which had been openly used during the Iran-Iraq War.

Iran views Iraq as First Line of Defense

From the perspective of Iran being the next target in the US transformation agenda by regime change, Tehran logically regards a US-occupied Iraq as a first line of defense and thus would try to prevent the US from establishing effective control there. Iran thus will work to keep Washington tied down in a no-win, no-exit situation in Iraq through close support for Iraq’s majority Shi‘a constituent. As US hostility towards Iran escalates towards military action, Tehran can be expected to step up its effort to shape Iraqi Shi‘a strategy and policy alternatives regarding the future political landscape in Iraq and its role in the region.

Iran would take every opportunity to prevent the US from stabilizing the sectarian violence in Iraq and from influencing Iraqi foreign policy into renewed hostility towards Iran. Toward this end, Iran would seek to keep Washington in a no-win situation of not being able to quickly withdraw its troops and also not being able to stay in Iraq for as long as needed to impose “democracy” without paying an unbearably high cost. In the end, the US would be bled so weak that its capacity to influence political developments in the region, much less than to reach the fantasy goal of advancing US national interest via the imposition of democracy through regime change, would be sharply curtained if not by an unsustainable overtax of its military resources, at least by an inevitable loss of will through fatigue in divisive domestic politics. The path to this scenario is to fan and escalate sectarian violence in US-occupied Iraq through Iran’s spiritual influence on Iraq’s large Shi‘a constituency.

It is, however, a risky strategy for Tehran. Overt Iranian intervention in southern Iraq provides credibility to Washington’s accusation of Iranian meddling in Iraq’s internal affairs. Such accusation, if proven, would justify even more hostile US pressure against Iran and neutralize international reservation about US military attack on it. This is especially true if US plans for troop withdrawal from the current quagmire in Iraq is hampered by Iranian intervention in order to frustrate US strategy of shifting from military to political control of Iraq.

Further, as a legacy of British “divide and rule” strategy after the fall of the Ottoman Dominion, Iraq’s Shi‘a population has been scattered into many separate communities of varied secular interests. Iraq’s diverse Shi’a population are far from ideologically homogenous, divided into many overlapping factions that speak with often competing voices, at times tribal, other times schismatic and still other times nationalistic and pan-Arabic. The different Iraqi Shi’ite factions do not automatically obey orders from Tehran with the same degree of unquestioned compliance. Many Iraqi Shi’ites regard Najaf in Iraq, not Qom in Iran, as the more authentic seat of Shi’a exegetic scholarship, theological authority and secular influence.

The fall of Saddam’s Sunni-dominated, secular, pan-Arab Ba’athist regime in Iraq causes fundamental reverberations in Iranian domestic theocratic politics as well as regional geopolitics in the context of centuries-old Persian-Arab nationalistic conflict.

Ba’athist Iraq strengthened Shi’a solidarity

Ironically when the Iraqi Ba’ath Party under Saddam Hussein, supported by secular Sunnis, moved to suppress the intrusion of religion into politics by dismantling the Shi’a clergy in the seats of theological learning in Iraq, it unwittingly strengthened the claim of the Iranian Shi’a ecclesiastic elite as true defenders of the faith and holy theological guardians, thus enhancing the doctrinal relevance and leadership of Qom in the greater Shi’a world. During the years of Ba’ath Party rule, many Iraqi Shi‘a leaders were forced to take refuge in Iran, making it natural for Iran to claim Khomeini’s doctrine of Islamic statism as orthodox Shi‘ism rather than the traditional “quietist” school which believes in a separation between religion and politics and between ecclesiastical and political authority. Quietism was discredited by actual reality as a suicidal theology.

Political rise of Shi’a in Iraq presents both opportunity and problems for Iran

With a majority Shi’ite government in place in post-war Iraq as a result of US-imposed democracy, Najaf, together with Karbala, can be expected to regain their theological significance at the expense of Qom, but only if Iraqi Shi’a adjusts it “quietism”. Yet the Iraqi Shi‘a community, now with a new taste of political power, is unlikely to take kindly to Iranian dictates in either theology or secular politics. When Iraq fell under the control of the British imperialism in 1915, milenium-old Persian influence was systematically purged with new Arabic nationality laws prohibiting non-Arab foreigners except Britons to hold high government office. An Iraq under US neo-imperialistic control can be expected to be equally unwelcoming of Iranian political influence under the cover of religious union.

Any clumsy Iranian attempt to assert coercive geopolitical leadership in Shi‘a Iraq could cause a backlash and damage the spiritual prestige and theological influence of Tehran and Qom in Shi‘a communities in the wider Arabic world, alienating the very elements Iran aims to rally against the US infidel.

A confident and secure Shi‘ite-dominated secular government in Iraq leads naturally to policy and doctrinal cleavages not only between Iraq and Iran, but also in Iran’s own unique Islamic theocratic system where both spiritual influence and political legitimacy are derived from militant religious orthodoxy.  Tehran and Qom stand integrated through the velayate faqih principle which rules through a clerical jurisprudence in which the top cleric is the spiritual leader of the Islamic state in a reverse form of Caesaropapism.

<>An alternative and influential source of religious authority beyond Tehran’s control could seriously test the doctrinal basis of Iran’s theocratic regime founded on a decidedly narrow interpretation of Shi‘a theology made valid by Western imperialistic abuse. The spiritual rebirth of Najaf will not only challenge Qom and give Arab Shi‘as a bigger say in Shi‘a affairs in the greater Shi’ite world from Lebanon to Yemen, but will also raise considerable theological support for those forces within the Persian Iranian power structure that question the continuing prudence of centralizing religious-political authority in the hands of the Faqih (Leader or Just Jurist) and a small group of ecclesiastic allies in the Guardian Council, the judiciary and security apparatus, and the Expediency Council. As Western cultural and economic imperialism recedes from the region, the flame of Islam fundamentalism will flicker from a loss of fuel.

The political evolution of post-Saddam Iraq is emerging as an important factor that affects factional rivalries within the Iranian power structure. Elements in Iranian domestic politics justify geopolitical solidarity with Arabic Shi‘a forces in Iraq’s emerging post-Ba’thist polity by pointing to a more threatening prospect of Iraqi Shi’ites being co-opted by anti-Iran US agenda in Iraq.  This agenda includes the imposition of a US version of a pro-West moderate Muslim Arabic state in Iraq that is schismatically hostile to Iran.

In the name of enhancing democracy, renewed US support can be expected for the Iraq-based anti-Tehran Mujahideen-e Khalq organization, a socialist opposition movement that turned against the revolutionary Islamic government in Iran after its influence was markedly curtailed in the new theocratic power structure.  After having first bombed its bases inside Iraq in an effort to keep Iran neutral during the US invasion in March 2003, the US now sees renewed support for the Mujahideen-e Khalq organization as a useful bargaining chip in its dealing with Iran.

Iran also aims to resist the establishment of permanent US military bases in Iraq, US control of Iraq’s oil wealth for anti-Iran geopolitical purposes, as well as the expansion of US military facilities in the small rich Arab Gulf states of Shi’ite Bahrain and Sunni Qatar to encircle Iran through an elaborate network of security alliances. Under such a scenario, Iran needs to keep all the friends and allies it can find. It provides justification for Tehran to encourage Iraqi Shi‘a forces to use their majority power in the new Iraqi polity to ensure a pro-Iran posture while convincing Sunni Arabs that sectarian violence is not Iranian policy.

Wolfowitz Miscalculation

Former US Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, widely identified as the infamous architect of the ill-fated US war on Iraq, put forth the view before the invasion that Iraqis are preferable as US allies than Saudis because Iraqis are secularists rather than fundamentalists and “overwhelmingly Shi’a, which is different from the fundamentalist Sunni Wahhabis of the Gulf peninsula, and they don’t bring the sensitivity of having the holy cities of Islam being on their territory [such as Mecca].” Wolfowitz and his fellow neo-con policymakers misguidedly discounted the confrontational passion of extremist Shi’ite fundamentalist forces of the Iraqi shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala and perilously underestimated the havoc their militia could cause.

SCIRI - Iran’s problematic ally in Iraq

Tehran has a powerful ally among Iraqi Shi‘as, notably the Badr Brigade of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), a large, influential Iraqi Shi’a political organization formerly based in Iran which regularly mounted military and logistical resistance operations in Iraq during Saddam’s long rule. Tehran has also been heavily engaged in training and maintaining the al-Hakim tribe as well as the well-established Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Islamist al-Da’wa party. Ironically, as the SCIRI solidifies its dominance in secular Iraqi politics, Tehran’s theo-geopolitical hold on it can be expected to slacken, because the SCIRI will have to maintain a balance between cross-border religious sectarian solidarity, Arab nationalism and even pan-Arabism, a movement Iran has no interest in supporting any more than Israel.

Iranian reliance on SCIRI to shape Iraqi politics in favor of Iran incurs the price of enhancing Iraqi Shi‘a influence in Iranian domestic theocratic politics and encourages reform on Shi‘a dogma. Those moderates in Tehran who counsel caution on evangelistic diplomacy worry about uncontrollable anti-Iran backlash in Iraqi politics resulting from domestic and foreign policy consequences of Iranian manipulation of Iraq’s large Shi‘a community for narrow geopolitical ends. They seek to protect Qom’s place as the highest authority of Shi‘ism by avoiding meddling in Iraq’s internal secular affairs. The dilemma is that Qom’s theology is not separable from secular politics and its religious orthodoxy requires Iran to interfere in Iraqi internal secular affairs.

The Iranian moderates also hope that Saddam’s fall would remove an obstacle for Iran to normalize state-to-state relations with the Sunni GCC states by assuring that Shi‘a majority in Iraqi society is not necessarily a security threat to Sunni interests but merely a part of the country’s historical reality. The partition of the Middle East by Western imperialist powers imposed political boundaries that ignored historical and existing religious and ethnic compositions, leaving multi-ethnic sovereign states in the region in the post-colonial world which Iran has no interest in disturbing. In essence, the biggest victim of Saddam’s fall in the long run will be pan-Arabism, a movement that is viewed by the US, Iran and Israel as a common enemy for different reasons. The failure of other Arab states to come to Saddam’s aid is a strategic error that will set back pan-Arabism for another century.

Iranian moderates and pragmatists point to the redeployment of US troops from Saudi Arabia to Qatar in April 2003 as evidence that Washington has been forced to moderate hostile intentions of targeting Iran, albeit the main reason was to neutralize al-Qaeda grievance on US troops stationed in Saudi Arabia, which had been used as a justification for terrorist attacks on the US. They further argue that encouragement should be given to those in the US ready to include Iran for discussions on collective security arrangements in the vital Gulf sub-region. Iranian moderates argue that Tehran should maintain its steady course of détente with the West and take advantage of the new situation in Iraq to underline its readiness to cooperate and enter into deeper dialogue with the US as well as the EU about the future shape of the Gulf security framework. They see an extended role for Iran in helping to reduce sources of tension in the Gulf as in its national interest, as Iran will better fulfill its natural role as a major power in the region without reactive Western hostility generated by aggressive exertion on the part of Iran.

Iraq War Balance of Power

Regional balance of power has shifted as a consequence of the US war on Iraq. Thus, although the US has unwittingly delivered the unintended gift to Iran by fulfilling Iran’s strategic goals in its eight-year war with Iraq: the removal of not just Saddam, but also the secular, pan-Arab Ba’thist regime, the continuing tensions between Washington and Tehran have transformed the removal of the Ba’athist regime as a Trojan Horse populated with poisonous Shi’ite schism with which Tehran must now contend.

Tehran has been active in fanning aggressive Iraqi Shi’a posture toward the Sunni minority in the sectarian composition of the new Iraqi government by insisting on majority rule democracy balanced by only sharply curtailed minority rights, aided by the naïve US occupation’s ill-considered purge of Ba’athists, the one effective force against Islam fundamentalism. In fact the combined pressure from the rise of Shi’a power and the collapse of secular Sunni Ba’athism open a huge window for the revival of Sunni Wahhabism.

In February, the new head of al-Qaeda in Iraq, the self proclaimed Amir of the Islamic State of Iraq, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, issued a statement welcoming the surge of more US troops into Iraq and looking forward eagerly to a US attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. An Islamic state of Iraq was proclaimed last year after the death of the al-Qaeda leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The Associated Press reported that Iraqi Brigadier General Qassim al-Moussawi, spokesman of Baghdad security operation, claimed that Abu Omar al-Baghdadi was captured on March 10 in a raid in Abu Ghraib on the western outskirts of Baghdad. US officials had no confirmation of the capture since Abu Omar al-Baghdadi is phantom character known only by a tape recording of a voice bearing his name. Even the capture of Osama bin Ladin himself will not spell the end of the cell structure of al-Qaeda. The US war on terrorism, instead of igniting a “proactive democratic revolution”, has transformed a secular Ba’athist regime in Iraq into an al-Qaeda Islamic state within a US occupied Iraq.

Neo-conservatives in Washington consider Ba’athist pan-Arabism strategically more lethal than Islam fundamentalism, a view shared by Israel. Islam extremism is a double sword: it breeds terrorism while it motivates anti-terror alliances even among strange bed-fellows. Pan-Arabism, if it should ever come to pass, will create a new super-block that will change the entire political landscape of the world and would present insurmountable problems for the US-Israel alliance. On the other side, Iran also aims to encourage Iraqi nationalism against US occupation without undue support for pan-Arabism.

The history of Islamic expansion via Arab conquests was driven by evangelical zeal, not by Arab imperialism. Victorious Arabs did not impose political regime changes in their conquered lands as long as the conquered population accepted Islam. After Persia was defeated by the Arab army, it transformed into an Islamic nation by purging its Zoroastrian root, but kept its unique civilization and political culture. It is a classic example of “blowback” when extremist Iranian Islamic geopolitics came back centuries later to haunt secular Arab states by pushing them towards Iranian-style Islamic republics.

Shi’a Intra-sectarian Conflict

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, age 76, is the leading cleric at Najaf, shrine city of holy figure Ali bin Abi Talib who was cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad. Sistani, born in Mashhad, Iran, came to Najaf (pop. 560,000) in 1952 at age 22 and settled permanently. Sistini hangs on to the “quietism” which had been eclipsed by the activist theocratic theory of clerical rule or the holy “guardianship of the jurisprudent” of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran which fueled the Iranian Revolution of 1979.

Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, top cleric at Najaf, a respected scholar of Islamic economics and banking, and a fervent defender of the ideas of Iran’s Khomeni and the Islamic Revolution, was killed by Saddam Hussein’s regime in 1980. During Saddam’s hanging, chants of "Long live Mohammed Baqir Sadr!" were heard being chanted by some of the Shi’a executioners. His nephew, Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, founder of the al-Sadr movement, was assassinated in 1999 by order of Saddam’s elder son Uday. Sistani then emerged as the most senior ayatollah in Najaf whose political stature ironically enhanced by the very theocratic theory he opposes.

Muqtada al-Sadr, 30-year-old son of the martyred Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr and son-in-law of the martyred Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, is Sistani’s foremost rival in Najaf.  After his father’s martyrdom, Muqtada went underground to organize the desperately poor Shi’ites of Najaf and nearby Kufa, and the Shi’ite slums of eastern Baghdad, renamed Sadr City from Saddam City, home to some three million zealous believers. The Sadr movement claims that only the militant rulings of Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr may be followed, contrary to orthodox mainstream Usuli Shi’ism forbidding the faithful to follow the rulings of a deceased jurisprudent.  The nationalistic Sadr movement is opposed to immigrant Iranian clerics like Sistani assuming theological authority in Iraq. Yet Muqtada is too young to claim such authority despite being more responsive to popular political passion.

After US troops entered Najaf on 8 April 2003, Sistani was reported to have made an oral proclamation urging Shi’ites not to resist invading US forces, a statement eagerly distorted by Wolfowitz as the ‘first pro-American fatwa’, a legal pronouncement in Islam made by a mufti, a scholar capable of issuing judgments on Islamic law (Sharia). Later, Wolfowitz’ fantasy was shattered when Sistani proclaimed that Iraq must be ruled “by the best of its children” which presumably meant Shi’ites.

Sheikh Muhammad al-Fartusi and two other clerics were sent by Sistani to Baghdad to preach the Friday prayer sermon at the al-Hikma mosque on April 21. The sermon said in part that the US could not impose a ‘democracy’ on Iraq that allowed freedom of individual speech but denied Iraqis the collective right to shape their own government. When US occupation forces arrested al-Fartusi, it caused a public protest of 5,000 Shi’ite followers.

The Sadr movement is made up of poverty-stricken slum dwellers sizzling with residual anger left from having been systematically brutalized Ba’ath Party security forces. The militia wing of this movement is known as the “Mahdi Army”, estimated as of early 2004 to consist of about 500-1000 trained combatants along with another 5,000-6,000 active participants. On April 10, 2003, a US-backed London-based rival ayatollah, Abd al-Majid al-Khoei, who was working with US Special Forces, was flown into Najaf from a decade-long exile in London, and was beaten and stabbed to death by a Sadr movement mob which then surrounded the houses of Sistani and Ayatollah Said al-Hakim, nephew of Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, leader of the SCIRI, demanding that these two “foreigners” leave Najaf immediately. The attempted ecclesiastical coup was thawed only when 1,500 Shi’ite tribesmen came in from the countryside near Iran to protect Sistani and al-Hakim.

The return of the Mahdi, the 12th Imam in occultation, is part of Shi'i eschatology. Muktada al-Sadr claims the
US is aware of the impending reappearance of the Mahdi, and the US invasion is an effort to seize and kill the Mahdi. Sadr’s name is chanted by supporters at rallies to imply that he is the "son of the Mahdi." Sadr asserts that the Mahdi Army, unlike other secular militias, “belongs to the Mahdi”, thus it is beyond his authority to disband it, as required by secular politics.

<>Muqtada, who is idolized in Sadr City, views fellow Shi’ite Sistani as morally spineless for failing to adjust his “quietism” even to resist the profane policies of Saddam’s secular Ba’ath Party, as Sistsni is now failing to actively resist crusading US occupation. Muqtad views expatriate politicians and clerics now returning to Iraq under US sponsorship in the same light, including Ahmad Chalabi and members of the secular-leaning Iraqi National Congress (INC), formed under the tutelage of the CIA to form a post-war puppet regime. The Sadr movement wants an Islamic republic in Iraq, albeit independent from Iran, run by patriotic devotees who bravely risked death to stay in the troubled homeland to keep the resistance going for decades, not cowards who fled the country to curt favor from infidel Western imperialism. The Sadr movement also repelled an attempt to infiltrate Sadr City by the rival Tehran-based Shi’ite Badr Brigade of the SCIRI.

US Occupation plays into Iran Strategy

Yet despite all the sectarian divides, one aim unites all Iraqi Shi’ite clerics: they all want the US out of Iraq sooner if not immediately. This aim conflicts with Iran’s tactical objective of keeping the US tied down in Iraq. A successful US withdrawal form Iraq would free up US military resources and restore US political will to focus on Iran. On the other hand, a hopelessly deteriorating quagmire in Iraq may force to US to seek an alternative path to victory by widening the war with an attack on Iran, or instigate an internal coup by supporting Iranian dissident groups. Thus Iran strategy for Iraq is neither US withdrawal nor escalation, just a slow bleed to drive home the awareness of superpower impotency to the whole world.

Ironically, the US views such tactics as supportive of its aim to stay in Iraq with reduced cost in troop casualty to realize an impossible dream of a democratic Middle East.  As long as incidents of violence and death decline in number from its unacceptable peak, the war party in the US can claim progress while falling into a long-term track of strategic defeat. It was a trap the US hawks fell into in Vietnam in which North Vietnam led the US high command into deluding itself of making statistical progress from previous low points while marching steadily toward final defeat.

The US has yet to learn that it is not possible for a superpower to win a local war unless it also wins the peace within 90 days. After that, “cut and run” is the only sensible strategy. Political objectives are not automatically served by a rudderless military victory. Alexander the Great defeated the numerically larger Persian army but failed to conquer Persia even with the imposition of mixed marriages between his Greek commanders and ladies of Persian royalty. In fact, Persia changed Alexander more than he changed Persia. The key problem with the US “War on Terrorism” is its projected long time frame. Patriotic adrenaline has a very short life span in a democracy, particularly in the US political culture where attention deficit syndrome rules.

SCIRI, headed by the late Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, is an offshoot of the revolutionary al-Da’wa al-Islamiyya Party founded in the late 1950s. Baqir Al-Hakim was forced abroad to Tehran in 1982 by Saddam’s persecution of key al-Da’wa figures. SCIRI has a paramilitary wing of some 15,000 armed fighters, trained by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and commanded by Baqir’s brother, Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim who has succeeded his assassinated brother as head of SCIRI. The al-Hakims are close to Iranian Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, successor to Khomeini as Supreme Leader in Iran.

SCIRI cooperated with the CIA and participated in forming the Iraqi National congress (INC) and was rewarded with 15 out of 65 seats on the provisional governing council formed at the Iraqi opposition meetings in London in December 2002 three months before the US invasion of Iraq. Key SCIRI figures also attended US State Department planning meetings on overthrowing Saddam, and made press statements about their negotiations with the office of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld about a role for the Badr Brigade to fight alongside US troops during the invasion. Since the Bush administration had earlier labeled SCIRI’s backers in Iran as part of the ‘axis of evil’, Rumsfeld’s open and ready willingness to cooperate with the allegedly evil Iran against Iraq, a former US ally and war enemy of Iran, was mind-boggling in its cynicism.

apprehension over SCIRI-Iran ties

Beginning January 2003, belated US apprehension over the danger of Iranian influence in a “democratic” Iraq caused the Bush administration to abruptly break with SCIRI. US National Security Adviser Zalmay Khalilzad coordinated with the office of Vice President Dick Cheney to dilute SCIRI influence within the puppet INC, chaired by exile charlatan bank fraudster Ahmad Chalabi, hailed as the “George Washington of Iraq” by his US neo-con backers, to the embarrassment of students of US history. The INC chairman provided much of the fabricated intelligence to support US pre-conclusion to invade Iraq, holding himself up as “the force of democracy” with the help of the media power of the Washington Post, predicting that US invaders would be welcomed by liberated Iraqi masses with hugs and flowers. Despite massive US funding, the INC, might have been received in Washington and London as enlightened savior of an evil nation, but it had no real spiritual influence or political followers in Iraq as it was composed of returned exiles who had been absent from Iraq for decades. After the collapse of organized Iraqi defense, US forces were greeted with rocket-propelled grenades and roadside bomb from relentless insurgent attackers. In the December 2005 Iraqi elections, the INC failed to win a single seat in Parliament.

In meetings in Turkey with anti-Saddam opposition groups in late January 2003, less than two months before the invasion, Khalilzad made known to the INC that the US intended to have Iraq administered after the ‘regime change’ by a US proconsul, instead of working through an Iraqi provisional government dominated by Shi’ites, until an elective regime more to US liking could be devised.

Feeling betrayed by a dramatic anti-Shi’ite turn in US policy, SCIRI leader Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim immediately denounced the plan of a post-war US administration as equivalent to a US colonial occupation, and threatened that the Badr Brigade would attack US troops if they overstayed their welcome. The US warned Iran not to allow Badr Brigade forces into Iraq during the US invasion that began on March 20, 2003. Yet by April 17, two weeks before Bush gave his speech on front of a huge “Mission Accomplished” sign aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1, Badr Brigade gunmen gained control of the town of Baquba (pop. 163,000) near the Iranian border, and a Badr Brigade allowed SCIRI cleric Sayyid Abbas to occupy the mayor’s mansion in Kut (pop. 360,000). When US Marines attempted to intercede, a crowd of 1,200 townspeople gathered, chanting slogans against INC leader Chalabi, calling for an Islamic Shia-controlled state for Iraq, and an end to US occupation.

Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, deputy head of SCIRI, returned to Iraq from Iran on April 16, 2003, arriving at Kut to roaring cheers to prepare the way for his older brother Baqir’s triumphant return. In a press interview, the younger al-Hakim pledged that SCIRI would work together with other parties in the new Iraq. In Kut on April 18, Abd al-Aziz said in an interview with Iranian television: ‘We will first opt for a national political system, but eventually the Iraqi people will seek an Islamic republic system.’ He added that the will of Shi’ites for an Islamic system would prevail in democratic elections, since they are 60% of the population. In one sentence, he aptly explained why the US opted for proconsul rule: to prevent Shi’ite control of Iraq.

On the same day, Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, still in Tehran, called upon Shi’ites to converge on the shrine city of Karbala four days later, on April 22, “to oppose a US-led interim administration and defend Iraq’s independence.” SCIRI spokesman Abu Islam al-Saqir added, “To the Iraqi people, US domination is no better than the dictatorship of the ousted brutal regime of Saddam Hussein.”

US Proconsul Rule in

The post of US proconsul, given the benign title of Director of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance for Iraq, was first filled in late January 2003, two months before the invasion by retired US general Jay Garner who had successfully conducted the 1990 first Gulf War operations in North Iraq with the cooperation of the Iraqi Kurds. Garner was president of an arms company that provides crucial technical support to missile systems vital to the US invasion of the country.  Garner’s arms dealer background caused concerns at the United Nations and aid agencies already opposed to US administration of Iraq outside UN authority.

On April 20, 2003, 11 days after Saddam’s statue was torn down in central Baghdad, Garner, already waiting in Kuwait, went to Baghdad with his small team. Garner was officially relieved by the White House 16 days later not for his arm dealership background, but for disagreement over who should be allowed to run Iraq. He told FRONT LINE Public Television in an August 11, 2006 interview that he was a lame duck the day he got to Iraq. Garner wanted early elections, 90 days after the fall of Baghdad, to produce a new Iraqi government of local politicians, not returned expatriates, to run the severely damaged country and manage its oil assets, while the White House was concerned with Iranian influence on a democratically elected Shi’ite majority as a result of the mindless US de-Ba’athization policy.

Garner was replaced on May 6, 2003 by Paul Bremer, State Department veteran and expert in crisis management. During two weeks of transition, Garner tried in vain to water down the de-Ba’athization order from Washington and to reconstitute the disbanded Iraqi army. Bremer, a hard-driving official by any standard, came to Iraq with specific orders to purge thoroughly the Ba’ath Party, a position adamantly insisted upon by Israel-leaning neo-conservatives in the Bush administration. Bremer stayed as proconsul for 13 months until July 28, 2004 and managed to delay general election until December 2005, providing time for the US to try against hope to create a balance of forces in new Iraqi electoral politics.  The result was an anemic Iraqi government with insufficient mandate to govern effectively, with no effective police force or nation-wide security capability, not even in the capital itself. The government survives only at the mercy of the Sadr movement. Bremer, whom critics hold responsible for much of the problems in Iraq today, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bush on December 14, 2004.

Da’wa Party

Despite having sired the SCIRI, the al-Da’wa al-Islamiyya Party itself remains a separate organization, with a commitment to Islamic government. It has London, Tehran and Iraq-based factions, of which only the London representatives have been willing to talk to US authorities. Many in the Iraqi al-Da’wa are loyal to Lebanese Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah who was born and educated in Najaf, sought refuge in Lebanon in 1965. Hezbollah in Lebanon, with which Fadlallah is not directly affiliated, has threatened violence against US troops in Iraq. Other than its Tehran branch, al-Da’wa, like the Sadr movement, is oriented toward indigenous Iraqi politics according to the theories of Islamic government advocated by the late Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr.

Even moderate al-Da’wa leader Ibrahim al-Jaafari refused to cooperate with the US military administration, boycotting the US-sponsored leadership meeting near Nasiriyya (pop. 535,000) on April 16, 2003 conference presided by US proconsul General Garner.  Al-Da’wa organized a demonstration on April 15 at Nasiriyya to protest, with thousands of demonstrators chanting: “No, no Saddam! No, no United States” and “Yes, yes for Freedom! Yes, Yes for Islam”, pitting Saddam against freedom and the US against Islam.  Placards of ‘No one represents us in the conference’ were clearly seen on television worldwide.

On April 19, al-Jaafari sent a letter to a meeting of countries neighboring Iraq, calling for the immediate establishment of a secular technocratic provisional government, suggesting that al-Da’wa was less theocratically oriented than other Shi’ite factions. Among the al-Da’wa leaders in Nasiriyya was the newly returned former exile, Muhammad Bakr al-Nasri, a prominent cleric, said to be the party’s philosophical guide. Al-Da’wa Party officials were apprehensive that they would be marginalized politically by the stronger paramilitary capabilities of SCIRI and the more aggressive Sadr movement.Tehran sees a potentially powerful ally among Iraqi Shi‘as, notably the SCIRI. The late Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim had long advocated an Islamic republic for Iraq. Many had compared his return to Iraq to that of Ayatollah Khomeini’s return to Iran. If Khomeini could overthrow the CIA-installed Shah in Iran, it would be a cinch for al-Hakim to topple the puppet Iraq provisional government set up by the US. In the days following the war, the Al-Hakim tribe quickly established itself as the largest and best-organized faction in the Iraqi Shia-majority.

Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim

The rising influence of the al-Hakim tribe soon caused alarm in Washington because of its strong links to Iran. While Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim had repeatedly rejected religious extremism, he also denounced the notion of any foreign-installed government ruling Iraq’s fractious masses. On his return to Iraq, Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim denounced US-led occupation forces and demanded their withdrawal from Iraq to allow Iraqis to establish their own government in an Islamic republic. Muhammad Baqir was assassinated on August 29, 2003 at age 64.  Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, brother of the assassinated ayatollah, joined the US-backed Iraqi Governing Council, symbolizing the willingness of some factions of the SCIRI to work with the US occupation.

Young Shi’ites, many from Baghdad’s poor Sadr City slums, are engaged in an ongoing power struggle with the more moderate Shi’ites among the urban middle class to grab control from both the al-Hakim tribe and senior cleric Santini. Muqtada al-Sadr, the 30-year-old son of Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, the martyred cleric whose post Sistini replaced, is among Sistani’s most important rivals in Najaf. Tehran has been heavily engaged in training and maintaining both the al-Hakim militia and the Sadr Brigade.

The Iraqi Kurds

The late Ayatollah Mohamad Baqir Al Hakim of the SCIRI had an historical and warm relation with the Kurdish Movements in Iraq since his father, Grand Ayatollah Muhsin Al Hakim, spiritual leader of the Shia world from 1955 to1970, gave a religious decree (Fatwa) forbidding the Iraqi army from fighting against the Kurds in Iraq. A mutual agreement was signed between SCIRI and the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) headed by Masood Barzani, which seeks an independent state for Kurds in Northern Iraq.  A similar agreement was signed with the PUK headed by Jalal Talabani, an off shoot of the KDP.  In 1996, KDP collaborated with Saddam’s Iraqi army in an attempt to destroy the PUK which was supported by Iran.

Back in 1992, during a meeting in Vienna, both Masood Barzani, the head of KDP, and Jalal Talabanie, the head of PUK, concurred with the CIA’s newly created Iraqi National Congress (INC) to set up bases in Iraqi Kurdistan and build a liberation army composed of returned exiled and defector Iraqis. The Kurdish parties allowed the INC to open an office in Salahaddin, twenty miles north of the Kurdish regional capital of
Irbil, and began beaming propaganda radio broadcasts into government-administered Iraq, gathering intelligence from Iraqi military deserters and building up its own army. The aim was to establish a new regime in northern Iraq that would dovetailed with Washington’s interests in the region.

After the 1991 Gulf War, the US organized no-fly zones in Iraq, north of the 36 parallel and south of the 32 parallel. In April 1994, two U.S. Air Force F-15 aircraft, operating in the no-fly zone north of the 36th parallel in Iraq to keep Saddam from intervening on the continuing civil war between the PUK, backed by Iran and the KDP, back by Saddam, shot down two US Army helicopters after mis-identifying them as Iraqi. This incident, with its high death toll, highlighted dramatically the complexities in dealing with Iraq in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War.

In September 1996, the KDP requested help from Saddam who sent 40,000 troops, demonstrating that he was not deterred by US warning against using military force in northern Iraq. In a announcement of incoherent logic, Clinton Defense Secretary William Perry made clear that while no significant US interests were involved in the Kurdish factional conflict, maintaining stability in the region as a whole was vital to US security and there would be a reaction. On September 2 and 3, US aircraft attacked Iraqi fixed surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites and air defense control facilities in the south, because, Perry explained, the US saw the principal threat from Iraq to be against Kuwait.

The Saudis were increasingly unhappy about the suffering of the Iraqi people after the 1991 Gulf War which made it a fertile ground for breeding al-Quada recruits. They were also unhappy about US military presence in the Sunni kingdom, the prime cause of Al-Queda terrorism. Riyadh declined to allow the US Air Force to fly strike missions on Iraq from Saudi bases. Unable to find bases in the region but determined to do “something” to show Saddam he could not attack the Kurds with impunity, the US and the UK settled for pushing the northern boundary of the southern no-fly-zone (NFZ) to the Thirty-third parallel, just south of Baghdad, and launching forty-four cruise missiles at Iraqi air defense targets in the newly expanded NFZ on September 3 and 4, 1996.

In a FRONT LINE interview by Elizabeth Farnsworth on
September 13, 1996, Perry said: “The larger strategic interest being the threat that Iraq poses to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.” Responding to Farnsworth’s query that Iraqi troops were invading in the North, not moving south, Perry said: “The complication from the political point of view is that they were invited by the KDP, which is the Kurdish unit in that area. The KDP is one and the PUK is the other Kurdish faction. They’ve been fighting with each other. And the KDP thought that they were going to be able to gain an advantage with fighting Iraqi troops on their side. I think that was a strategic blunder on their part. They think they can manipulate the Iraqis and they'll find that they’re too powerful and too ruthless to be manipulated. But in any event, they have made that move, and that has complicated quite a bit the actions that we could take. … We do not get involved in the military conflict, and we do not send the troops in unless we see a vital national interest involved. And our vital national interest is in Iraqand the South, not in the North. … I think he [Saddam] has laudable objectives. One of them certainly is to regain control of Northern Iraq, which he has not had for the last five years. Another one is to assert his military ascendency in the area to give him a free hand to move into the South either through coercive power or through actual military--actual military power. … Our objectives, first of all are protecting our vital strategic interest, which means protecting our friends and allies in the region, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia. Secondly, keeping the free flow of oil from the Gulf, which is a vital national interest to the United States and indeed to the whole industrial world. Those are the two primary vital national interests.”

Farnsworth then asked: “In attacking Saddam Hussein for doing something which he says was aimed at countering Iran [which supports the PUK], are we likely to be seen as helping further Iranian interests in the Middle East?”

Perry responded: “The PUK has received very limited support from Iran, including some shelling across the border, including perhaps a hundred or so trainees in the army. This is correct. And this, I believe, Saddam Hussein has used as a rationale for doing something he wanted to do anyway, but there is no comparison between what the Iranians did in support of the PUK, where there are a hundred or so trainers versus the 40,000 troops and the 300 tanks which Saddam Hussein sent in. His goal, it seems to me quite clearly, immediate goal, is to regain control of Northern Iraq. And one of the greatest--one of the groups that will suffer the most in this are the KDP, which is the group that invited him in the first place. But that's a lesson they have yet to learn.”

Perry went to the region in September 1996 to build Kurdish support for a US-backed strike against Saddam. The plan was opposed by Saudi Arabia which saw Saddam as an effective factor in containing Shi’a influence, and by Turkey which did not want to encourage Kurdish separatism in Turkey. On September 9, the day after his return home, Perry was again interviewed by Jim Lehrer of FRONT LINE who asked that in view of the fact that the Kuwaitis delayed 24 hours before accepting 3,500 US troops, and the Saudis saying they never would have allowed such troops into their country, and the Turks having refused to allow US planes to fly out of Turkish bases on missions over Iraq, was the Gulf War coalition falling apart?  Perry denied that the coalition was falling apart, adding that “the message to Saddam Hussein is if you threaten our vital national security interests, you will be facing military action from the United States.”

Brian Knowlton of the International Herald Tribune reported on September 9 from Washington that President Clinton conceded that he could do little about the fighting in Northern Iraq but to implore the warring Kurdish factions to return to the negotiating table, since US-supported peace talks had broken down earlier in the summer. “I would still like to do more to help the Kurds,” Clinton was quoted as saying, “But frankly, if you want the fighting to be ended, the leaders of the various factions are going to have to be willing to go back to the peace table and talk it through.” He said Washington’s ability to control events in Iraq was “limited.” The US made it clear that it was not prepared to intervene directly in the fighting, which Defense Secretary Perry described as a civil war between Kurds. Clinton appealed to the two chief Kurdish factions to avoid “any cavalier killing of civilians and others who are not combatants in this.” He did not say what aid might be provided to members of the US-backed opposition group who was now on the run. The Iraqi military’s capture of Arbil smashed the CIA-financed operation intended to destabilize the Saddam government, trapped 200 members of the Iraqi National Congress there and led to the execution of Saddam opponents.

Former Saddam-era deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz, brought before the Iraqi High Tribunal to testify against six defendants accused of genocide in the Anfal trial on the 1988 campaign against Iraqi Kurds that included the use of poison gas, instead denied that the Saddam government had carried out any such attacks. Aziz insisted that Iraq did not have the chemical weapons necessary for the alleged gas attacks that killed 5600 Kurds in northern Iraq, instead fingering Iran and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) as the culprits.

was known to be continually supporting the PUK whose founder and Secretary General, Jalal Talabani, was elected President of Iraq on April 6, 2005. The formerly Iran-based SCIRI find it expedient to compromise with an emerging Iran-supported Kurdish leadership to strengthen its hand in the post-Saddam power structure.

US befriends Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim

On December 4, 2006, Bush, under pressure to calm sectarian violence in Iraq, met with the head of SCIRI, Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, for the second time and applauded his “commitment to a unity government” for Iraq. The president said: “Part of unifying Iraq is for the elected leaders and society leaders to reject the extremists that are trying to stop the advance of this young democracy. I appreciated very much His and his Eminence's strong position against the murder of innocent life.”  Bush added: “This is a man whose family suffered unbelievable violence at the hands of the dictator, Saddam Hussein. He lost nearly 60 family members, and yet rather than being bitter, he's involved with helping the new government succeed.”  What Bush did not say was the many of the killings were carried out with US approval.

At the end of the 1991 Gulf War, President George Bush, Sr. urged Iraqis to topple the Ba’ath regime, but the US did not back the Shi’ite uprising that ensued in southern Iraq. Fear of Iranian influence over Iraqi Shi’ites through SCIRI was a decisive factors in the US decision not to support the uprising.

In the December 2005 elections, Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, emerged as the head of the Unified Iraqi Coalition (UIC) that won 128 seat out of 275 seats in the Council of Representatives. The Coalition includes the Islamic Da’wa Party, the Islamic Virtue Party, the Centrist Coalition Party, the Bader Organization, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution In Iraq, the Turkman Islamic Union of Iraq, the Justice and Equality Assembly, the Iraqi Democratic Movement, the Movement of Hezbollah in Iraq, the Turkmen Loyalty Movement, the Saed Al Shuhada Islamic Movement, the Al Shabak Democratic Gathering, the Malhan Al Mkoter-Mr, the Islamic Da’wa Party-Iraq Organization, the Reform And Building Meeting, the Al Sadriah Advertising, the Justice Community, and the Iraq Ahrar.

As head of both UIC and SCIRI, Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim went to Tehran on February 5, 2007 to meet with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani. Iranian agencies reported that Khamenei told Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim that Iranian policy is “to support the Iraqi government,” and the unity of all Iraqis will remove the need for the continued presence in Iraq of foreign troops. “The presence of one of the main reasons for insecurity in Iraq,” Khamenei said. Abd al-Aziz Hakim said after meeting with Larijani that Iran-US talks on Iraq “are undoubtedly very important and Iraqi authorities want this.” Islamic Republic News Agency reported him saying that “political haggling [between Iran and the US] will benefit the entire region.” Abd al-Aziz Al-Hakim said Iraqi authorities are engaged in "very extensive activity" to assure the release of Iranian diplomats arrested by US forces in Irbil on January 11. He also met with Judiciary Chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi who said: “the Americans must release Iranian diplomats as soon as possible without any excuses.”

On February 6, 2007, Adnan al-Raddam, media spokesman for Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the UIC, says that in addition to Iran, Al-Hakim will visit Arab Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Bahrain. In a telephone interview with Al-Sharqiyah TV in Dubai, Al-Raddam is cited as saying that Al-Hakim's call for “open dialogue” between Tehran and Washington aims at “distancing” Iraq from US-Iranian political issues so as not to turn Iraq into an arena for “political vendettas.” Al-Raddam stresses that Iraq is burdened with political, military, security, and economic issues, adding that the situation is already “complex and can not withstand further complications.”

Ibrahim al-Jaafari – Pro-Iran Prime Minister of

On April 7, 2005, the Iraqi National assembly appointed Ibrahim al-Jaafari Iraq’s first full-term post-war prime minister. Iraq’s new interim government had been trumpeted by the Bush administration as a close friend and a model for democracy in the region. In contrast, Bush had called Iran part of an “axis of evil” and dismissed its elections as frauds and its government as illegitimate. So the Bush administration was less than pleased when the first Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, before he was replaced by Nouri Kamel Mohammed Hassan al-Maliki, deputy leader of the Islamic Da’wa Party and deputy leader of the De-Ba’athification Commission of the Iraqi Interim Government, led eight high-powered cabinet ministers to pay a visibly friendly visit to Tehran in July 2005.  Upon arrival in Tehran on a Saturday, al-Jaafari visited the mausoleum of the Founder of the Islamic Republic, the late Imam Khomeini and paid tribute to him by laying a wreath on his tomb. On the following Monday, al-Jaafari and his delegation met with the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei.

Jaafari's July 2005 visit to Iran was a blow to the Bush administration’s strategic vision, but a sweet triumph for Shi’a theocracy. In the dark days of 1982, Tehran was asylum of choice for Iraqi Shiite expatriates who had been forced to flee Saddam Hussein’s death decree against them to a country with which Iraq was then at war. Ayatollah Khomeini, the newly installed theocrat of Iran, pressured the Iraqi expatriates to form an umbrella organization, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which he hoped would eventually take over Iraq. Among its members were Jaafari and Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim. On Jan. 30, 2005, Khomeini's vision became reality, courtesy of the Bush administration, when the Supreme Council and the Da’wa Party won the Iraqi elections.

Jaafari, a Da’wa Party leader working for an Islamic republic in Iraq, had been in exile in Tehran from 1980 to 1989. A physician trained at Mosul, the reserved and hesitant Jaafari studied Shi’te law and theology as an auditor at the seminaries of Qom. His party, Da’wa, was the home of SCIRI but in 1984 split with it to maintain its autonomy.

Although neoconservatives like Paul Wolfowitz maintained before the Iraq war that Iraqis are more secular and less interested in an Islamic state than Iranians, in fact the theocratic ideas of Khomeini of Iran had had a deep impact among Iraqi Shi’ites. In the December 2005 elections, Iraqi Shi’ites put the Khomeini-influenced Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq in control of seven of the nine southern provinces, along with Baghdad itself.

Jaafari’s government did not control the center-north or west of the country and could not pump oil from Kirkuk because of Sunni sabotage. The Rumaila oil field in the south lacks refining capability. Iraq does not have a deep water port on the Gulf and needs to replace inland “ports” like Amman because of poor security. An initiative toward the east could resolve many of these problems, strengthening the Shi’ites against the Sunni guerrillas economically and militarily and so saving the new government.

Iran-Iraq relations had not been good since the mid-1950s when Iraq was ruled by a British-installed constitutional monarchy with a fanatically pro-West, anti-Communist Prime Minister in the person of Nuri as-Said. The CIA had put Mohammad Reza Shah back on the throne in 1953, deposing the democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh who had angered the US when he nationalized the Iranian oil industry even when Iraq committed itself to pay fair compensation. Ironically, when the Shah came to power, he kept Iranian oil nationalized, using oil revenue to solidify his own power. In 1955, Said and the Shah both signed on enthusiastically to the anti-communist Baghdad Pact, a US-sponsored collective security agreement against the Soviet Union and Arab nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt. Nationalist reaction against the pact led to a secular populist revolution that overthrew the Iraqi monarchy in 1958, with Nuri's corpse was dragged in the street by angry mobs. eventually came under the control of the pan-Arabic Ba’ath Party.

Another populist revolution overthrew the Shah of Iran in 1979. In 1980-1988, leading a a theocratic government led by Khomeini. Iran-Iraq relations reached their nadir, as Saddam Hussein's Ba’ath Party and Khomeini's Revolutionary Guards fought to a stalemate in horrible war not seen since World War I. Jaafari's visit was partly designed to erase the bitter legacies of that war. Iraq's Eastern Policy is has religious overtones. Upon arrival in Iran on a Saturday, Jaafari immediately made a ceremonial visit to, and laid a wreath at the tomb of Ayatollah Khomeini. In a meeting with Supreme Jurisprudent Ali Khamenei on the following Monday, Tehran Times reported that Jaafari “called the late Imam Khomeini the key to the victory of the Islamic Revolution,” adding, “We hope to eliminate the dark pages Saddam caused in Iran-Iraq ties and open a new chapter in brotherly ties between the two nations.”<>

generously rewarded Jaafari by offering to pay for three pipelines that would stretch across the southern border of the two countries. Iraq will ship 150,000 barrels a day of light crude to Iran to be refined, and Iran will ship back processed petroleum, kerosene and gasoline. The plan could be operational within a year, according to Petroleum Minister Ibrahim Bahr al-Ulum, whose father is a prominent Shi’ite cleric<>.

In addition, Iran will supply electricity to Iraq, sell Iraq 200,000 tons of wheat and allow Iraq the use of Iranian ports to transship goods to Iraq, plus a billion dollars in foreign aid. All this generosity look to Washington as influence peddling.

Iranian Supreme Jurisprudent Khamenei called for the preservation of the territorial integrity of Iraq and stepping up cooperation in policing the borders of the two countries. The previous week, Iraqi Defense Minister Saadoun Dulaimi had made a preparatory trip to Tehran, exploring the possibility of military cooperation between the two countries. At one point the two had appeared to have reached an agreement that Iran would help train Iraqi troops which immediately sent the neocons in Washington going ballistic. Immediate enormous pressure was applied on Jaafari to back off this plan. The Iraqi government abandoned it, on the grounds that an international agreement had already specified that out-of-country training of Iraqi troops in the region should be done in Jordan. But the Iraqi government did give Tehran assurances that they would not allow Iraqi territory to be used in any attack on Iran, without mentioning that the only likely attacker is the US<>.

Iranian leaders pressed Jaafari on the continued presence in Iraq of the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK), an Iranian terrorist organization with ties to the Pentagon, the Israeli lobby, and hawks in of the US Congress. The Saddam regime had used the MEK to de-stabilize Iran. Jaafari promised that the MEK had been disarmed and would not be allowed to conduct terrorist raids from Iraqi soil<>.

Iraqi Sunnis resist
Iran influence<>

The warming relations between Tehran and Baghdad greatly alarms Iraq’s Sunni Muslims. They know that Iranian offers of help in training Iraqi security officers, and Iranian professions of support for a united, peaceful Iraq are code for the suppression by Shiite troops and militias of the Sunni Arab guerrilla movement. Many Iraqi Sunnis believe that the Sunni Arabs are the true indigenous majority, but that millions of illegal Iranian emigrants masquerading as Iraqi Shi’ites have flooded into the country, skewing vote totals in the recent elections. This belief makes them especially suspicious of Shi’ite politicians cozying up to the ayatollahs in Tehran. A recent BBC documentary reported that the Sunnis of Fallujah despise Iraqi Shi’ites even more than they do the US mercenaries, in part because they view them as Persians. A recent CNN report detailed the on-going struggle between the CIA and the new Shi’ite controlled Iraqi intelligence units for control of the Iraqi security apparatus<>.

US faces political defeat by Iran

Although the US maintains a fašade of welcoming good relations between Iraq and Iran, the State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency, and hawks in the Bush White House all hold deep grudges against the Islamic Republic of Iran which is their prime target for regime change and transformation. The fiasco of the Iraq War renders the option of toppling the Ayatollahs an impossible dream. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack revealed Washington powerlessness when he admitted that the Bush administration had not “had a chance” to discuss with Jaafari before or after his trip to Iran<>.

is well positioned to score geopolitical advantage in Iraqi politics, buoyant by high petroleum profits from high oil prices. Tehran’s long alliance with Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, now president of Iraq, gives Iran Kurdish support. Bush has removed from power Iran’s most powerful and dangerous regional enemy in the person of Saddam Hussein, and the secular, pan-Arabist Ba’ath Party, something Iran was unable to do even after 8 years of bloody war, with the result of Shi’ites came to power through elections in Iraq, giving Iran a firm ally that will enhance Iran’s reach into the Middle East through Hezbollah, its other ally Lebanon. By invading Iraq, the US faces geopolitical defeat not only in Iraq, but in Iran and Lebanon as well<>.

At the end of the Cold War, neoconservatives advocated the use of overwhelming military superpower to spread democracy around the world. In 1992, Paul Wolfowitz prepared a Defense Policy Guidance Document that called for the use of US forces in a pre-emptive and if necessary unilateral approach to achieve a “new American century.” Presidents Bush, Sr. and Clinton adopted instead the traditional, pragmatic strategy of containment toward Iraq<>.

In 1996, Richard Perl, Douglas Feith and others of the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies argued forcefully for the removal of Saddam Hussein by force. In 1998 the Project for a New American Century (PNAC), chaired by William Kristol, sent a letter to President Clinton again asking him to remove Saddam Hussein by force. The letter was signed by 18 individuals including Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Perl, Elliot Abrams, Richard Armitage, John Bolton, Paul Wolfowitz, and others who became the primary advisers to President George W. Bush. In the 1990 January/February issue of Foreign Affairs Condoleezza Rice stated that a Republican foreign policy would “mobilize whatever resources necessary” to remove Saddam Hussein. In September of 2000 the PNAC put forth a document entitled “Rebuilding American Defenses: Strategy, Forces and Resources for a New Century.” This document serves as the basis for the post 9-11 foreign policy of President Bush<>.

Nine days after the events of 9-11 the PNAC sent a letter to the President urging him “to remove Saddam Hussein from power” as a part of any war on terrorism. It is the height of irony that the “New American Century” heralds the triumph of radical Islamic theocracy in the Middle East<>.

Nouri Kamel Mohammed Hassan
al-Maliki – New Iraqi Prime Minister

In the December 2005 parliamentary elections, UIC plurality nominated Jaafari as prime minister but opposition from minority Sunni and Kurdish factions prevented him from forming a coalition government. On April 22, 2006, President Jala Talabani, Kurdish leader of the PUK, who himself was elected president on April 7, 2005 by the newly elected National Assembly, removed al-Jaafari and replaced him with Nouri Kamel Mohammed Hassan al-Maliki.

The ongoing quagmire in Iraq has foreclosed the ability of Bush administration hawks to carry out their long-held dream of executing a regime change in Iran, or even of forcing it to end its nuclear ambitions. To the Iranian leadership, the lesson of Iraq was not that it had nuclear ambitions, but that it did not actually have nuclear capability, which would have provided an effective deterrent against US attack. Of the three governments of Bush’s “axis of evil”, Iraq represented “one down, two to go.” Yet the whole world can see that US approach to North Korea abruptly changed from dictatorial intransigence to flexible negotiation after the North Korean nuclear test. The US is in no position to invade Iran with ground troops both because of an already overtaxed army and depleted political capital to absorb high battle casualties.  More critically, the US now needs the help of Iran to disengage from a guerrilla war that it cannot win and from which it cannot run.  The price of imposing democracy in Iraq may well be an Islamic republic of Iraq with special relationship with Iran, the way the US and the UK are bound by a special relationship cemented by two world wars.

officials announced in late February that they had agreed to hold the highest-level contact with the Iranian authorities in more than two years as part of an international meeting on Iraq. The discussions, scheduled for the next two months, are expected to include Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and her Iranian and Syrian counterparts.

The announcement from Baghdad and confirmed by Washington that the US would take part in two sets of meetings among Iraq and its neighbors, including Syria and Iran, is a shift in President Bush’s avoidance of high-level contacts with the governments in Damascus and Tehran as a principle of “moral clarity”. Last December, the Iraq Study Group, the high-level bi-partisan commission, had urged direct, unconditional talks with Iran and Syria, which Bush immediately rejected and instead embarked on the more confrontational approach.

“I would note that the Iraqi government has invited Syria and Iran to attend both of these regional meetings,” Rice told a Senate panel on February 27, in discussing the talks, which will include Britain, Russia, and a host of international organizations and Middle Eastern countries.

T<>he first meeting, which will include senior Bush administration officials such as State Department Iraq envoy David Satterfield, will be in Baghdad in the first half of March, administration officials said. In early April, Secretary Rice will attend a ministerial level conference, presumably with her Iranian and Syrian counterparts, which will likely be somewhere else in the region.

Iraqi foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari, called anticipated US face-to-face contact with Iran and Syria, two countries that the Bush administration has accused of destabilizing Iraq, “very significant”, adding, “Iraq is becoming a divisive issue in the region. Iraq can be helpful to its neighbors also. It can provide a platform for them to work out their differences.”

The US continues to accuse Iran of meddling in Iraq, including shipping lethal weapons to Shiite militias in Iraq which the Bush administration says have been used in attacks against American troops. Newly appointed US intelligence chief Mike McConnell told a Senate committee on February 27 that Iran was training anti-US Iraqi Shi’ites in Lebanon and Iran to use armor-piercing weapons against US troops in Iraq. McConnell said it was probable that top Iranian leaders, including Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, were aware that weapons had been supplied by Iran. To counter impression that the US has capitulated to its earlier position of not negotiating with Iran, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the Iranian-made weapons would be “certainly at the top of our list” in the meetings.

Iran’s nuclear issue from the Iraq issue

Bush administration officials characterize as a separate issue from Iraq, Iran’s nuclear program, which Washington insists is aimed at developing nuclear weapons, a charge which Tehran denies. Vice President Dick Cheney said in February that “all options are still on the table” for Washington to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, a comment that has heightened concern that the administration is considering attacking Iran’s nuclear sites. One senior administration official was reported to have said that while some Bush officials have advocated looking for ways to talk to Iran and Syria, they did not want to appear to be talking to either country from a position of weakness. By ratcheting up the confrontational talk, the administration official said, the US was in more of a driver’s seat. “We became convinced that the Iranians were not taking us seriously,” said Philip D. Zelikow, who until December was the top aide to Rice. “So we’ve done some things to get them to take us seriously, so now we can try diplomacy.” Yet this appears to be for US domestic consumption where tough talk is part of the US macho culture. Most professional diplomats from participating governments scheduled to attend the meetings know that the US is in fact coming to the talks from a position of weakness because the record of US superpower behavior since the end of the Cold War has always been no talks except as a last resort.

The ill-fated US adventure in Iraq has made Iran a clear winner. Iraqi Shi’ite leaders know they need Iranian support to contain the Sunni insurgents and to restore Iraq’s shattered economy. The US has failed to achieved either of these basic objectives of stability after more than three years of occupation primarily because being self-absorbed with its own superior “moral values” prevents it to acquire any real understanding of the political dynamics and sectarian culture of the region to be an effective player in the game. The Iraq fiasco shows that the age of superpower hegemony and invincibility is over. The 21st Century is an age when a few thousand insurgents with a clear purpose backed by handfuls of AK47s and grenade propellers can defeat by attrition a superior occupying army with unmatched and high-tech killing power. The flaw of the US strategy of regime change is that the new regime can be more problematic than the one it replaces.

Next: Iranian Politics and the Nuclear Issue