US, Iran and the Iraqi election gameIran and the United States are involved in an intense competition to make Iraq an integral part of their respective, clashing, and invariably contradictory spheres of influence. Their chief difference in modus operandi is that the US has wrapped its designs in the multicolored covering of democracy and liberty to make it palatable to the Iraqis. Iran, on the contrary, is very quiet about using its Shi'ite ties to make Iraq a vassal. In the election campaign ahead of January elections, these two actors will intensify their endeavors to ensure that either a pro-US or a pro-Iran government emerges in Iraq. Strangely enough, the chief wild card in this competition is the Iraqi populace, whose preferences are being blatantly ignored by both Washington and Tehran, each determined to have its particular way.
In the power game that is being played in the Middle East, the most powerful ones don't necessarily emerge as the winners. The limitation of military power becomes obvious when one examines the fact that the United States is so utterly bogged down in the Iraqi quagmire after quickly dismantling the Saddam Hussein regime. Now it can bomb the cities into rubble, but the defiance of the insurgents and their sympathizers appears well nigh invincible. The Iraqi insurgents know that as long as they can absorb human losses the US behemoth will remain on shaky ground, for its capacity to absorb human losses is indeed quite finite. That is what is driving the insurgents and terrorists in their battles with the United States in Samarra and Fallujah.
The administration of US President George W Bush knows full well the Achilles'-heel aspect of its own involvement in Iraq. That is why it is also busy ensuring that its long-term presence or influence is not jeopardized. The ultimate purpose of the US occupation is to ensure that Iraq remains a vassal state. Washington knows how significant it is to keep that country down for the sole purpose of sustaining its own hegemony in the Middle East. The very Ba'athist heritage of Iraq (and that of Syria) is deeply anti-imperial and anti-Western in nature. It despised the British presence in the region, and transferred its hatred and suspicion from Britain to the United States, when the latter became the hegemonic power in 1970, the official ending of the dominant British presence from the Persian Gulf.
The current obstacle from the vantage point of the United States is the reported paralysis that has emerged in Washington as a result of strong disagreements between the Department of State (DOS) - which is now in charge of the occupation-related policies of Iraq - and the Department of Defense (DOD) - which used to be in charge for that very purpose. The Bush administration has earmarked US$40 million to help Iraqi political parties mobilize. The unstated purpose of that fund is "to counter Iran's support for its allies in the emerging race to influence" the outcome of elections come January.
The same paralysis is also afflicting America's policy regarding Iran. What is making the Bush administration quite nervous is the fact that Iran is also dumping its own substantial resources onto the highly organized Shi'ite religious parties. This very characteristic of the Shi'ite parties provides them with an abundant edge over the struggling moderate and non-sectarian parties in Iraq. Iran remains fully focused on such religious parties as the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution (SCIRI), the Islamic Dawa party, and Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army.
The United States, on its part, is also pursuing a similar, but two-tiered, strategy. The first tier of this strategy is to supply funds to secular parties, even though in theory US funds are available to all Iraqi parties. The second tier of the US strategy is to create a multilateral forum for Iraq in mid-November. The purpose of that forum is to bring Iraq's neighbors together, along with the Arab League, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), the Arab League, the Group of Eight industrialized countries, and the European Union.
This forum will create a multilateral plan for the evolution of a secular democratic Iraq, with the hope that the OIC, the GCC and the Arab League would endorse such a move. More substantially, the purpose of including Iran in this forum is to teach it "how to be a responsible neighbor". Of course, stripped of its diplomatic twaddle, the purpose of the United States is to persuade Iran to allow the emergence of a secular democratic Iraq, an objective that is directly opposed to Iran's purpose of helping Iraq to emerge as an Islamic democracy. The inclusion of Western states in this move is not too subtle, an attempt by the US to legitimize its own continued occupation of Iraq.
Apparently, the preceding US plan is put together by the DOS. However, it is as much divorced from regional realities as any other plan that the DOD has promoted thus far. No one is paying any heed to the following very basic questions. Why should Iran help the US in making Iraq in its (US) image, when such an objective so profoundly contradicts Iran's own goal of seeing the emergence of an Islamic Iraq? Why is it that Washington's objectives toward Iraq become so superior that all the neighboring states are to undermine their own national interests and behave "responsibly"? Why should, by helping Iraq become a secular democratic country, Iran improve the prospects of the establishment of a permanent US hegemony, right next door to itself? No one who is knowledgeable about the profound historic religious and cultural ties between Iraq and Iran would pursue such an objective and expect the latter to cooperate.
Let us also candidly admit that Iran, too, wishes to see a vassal Iraq in the future. But Iraq is much too significant a state - both from the vantage points of Islam and pan-Arab history - to become a vassal. Baghdad was the seat of the Abbasid caliphate from the 9th to the 13th century. During this era, it became the center of Islamic learning and international trade. In the contemporary era, Iraq became the seat of the Ba'ath Party, which was the chief proponent of pan-Arabism. Only later on was that party reduced to a mouth organ of Saddam Hussein's megalomaniac rule. Even while it was under United Nations sanctions and under constant US military surveillance, the significance of Iraq as an Arab state was never reduced.
Either by being unmindful of Iraq's previous significance or by merely ignoring it, the United States is expecting to impose its own preferences over the Iraqis, first through military conquest, and then by using a multilateral forum to legitimize its long-term occupation, even in the form of permanent military bases. Iran, on the contrary, is hoping to impose its own priorities on Iraq by using historical religious and cultural linkages.
The Iraqis, despite their ethnic and sectarian differences, have thus far manifested that Iraq is likely to be a vassal of neither the United States nor Iran. Any entity inside Iraq - either the Interim Iraqi Government or the Shi'ite parties - that attempts to promote such a reality is likely to be swept aside.
Ehsan Ahrari, PhD, is an Alexandria, Virginia, US-based independent strategic analyst.