US-Iranian tug and pull over Iraq

Posted in Iran | 31-Aug-04 | Author: Ehsan Ahrari| Source: Asia Times

The deal struck between the old guard, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and the young guard, Muqtada al-Sadr, on Thursday over the custodianship of the Imam Ali Shrine is also a continuation of the struggle for the future of Iraq.

The old guard is unwittingly giving the US occupation a little space to maneuver, with an understanding that the young guard will not be harmed. Muqtada has apparently agreed to hand over the custodianship of the shrine with a more than tacit understanding that he will be allowed to participate in the Iraqi elections down the road. A five-point plan calls for foreign troops to leave the city and for the Iraqi government to compensate victims of the unrest. What the US may not have realized is that the real struggle about the future of Iraq has just entered another phase.

Through Muqtada, Iran is emerging as a potent power in the political maneuvering with the US over whether Iraq will become some sort of a secular or semi-secular democracy, or an Islamic democracy. Through this, the chances of Iran's preference for the emergence of an Islam-based Iraqi government seem to have perceptibly improved.

The shock and awe aspects of the Bush doctrine in Iraq suffered a serious setback because of the deteriorating security situation, but US aspirations to transform the shape of the political map of Iraq and the larger Middle East remain undeterred. That is one reason why Washington made a very crucial tactical shift from an overall preference for unilateralism to selective application of multilateralism in Iraq, and allowed the United Nations to play a limited role in the formation of the interim government. However, a potent competition between the US and Iran is currently taking place, not only to maintain control over the shape of events in Iraq, but also to determine whether the future elected government there will have a heavy presence and influence of the Islamic or secular elements.

The Bush administration invaded Iraq with a whole slew of shifting strategies and rationales. Ultimately, it settled on the grounds of implanting democracy in that country, and then using that as a "shining" example for the rest of the Middle East. Another explanation was that the road to settlement of the Palestine Liberation Organization-Israeli conflict passed through Baghdad. Once Saddam Hussein was toppled, argued President George W Bush and his national security officials, violence and suicide acts in the occupied Palestine were going to subside. Iran affected all these rationales one way or another, albeit in some instances, its influence was somewhat indirect.

Even the US outlook of implantation of democracy in Iraq went through several versions. First, there was the Pentagon's version of it, whereby the coronation of exile Ahmad Chalabi was to take place as president, right after the cessation of hostilities. Since Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz - the official part of the Pentagon - and Richard Perle (aka "Prince of Darkness") - the unofficial player, who then served as chairman of the powerful Defense Advisory Board that counsels the Pentagon on defense matters - got most of their first-hand knowledge and a substantial part of their intelligence on Iraq from Chalabi, they bought lock-stock-and-barrel his description of the outcome of the US invasion. According to that portrayal, the invasion of Iraq would be a cakewalk, that the Iraqi troops would lay down their arms and would not fight, and that the American troops would be given a welcome reception of sweets and rosewater.

But when the US invasion was met with stiff resistance - whose intensity kept only escalating with the passage of time - other haphazard measures were introduced. The option of implanting Chalabi was quickly abandoned, and discussions of secular democracy and elections surfaced within the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) of Iraq. Then the Iraqi Governing Council was packed with expatriate Iraqis, with the clear intention of using them as leading proponents for secular democracy for their country. Finally, a sort of "exit strategy" was settled on in Washington, whereby a handpicked interim Iraqi government was to take charge leading up to general elections in early 2005. Throughout that course, the American purpose was implantation of a secular democracy, one of whose raison detre was to allow the presence of US forces for an unlimited period. Iraq, under this vision, was to emerge ultimately as a friendly state, even legitimizing the current regional dominance of Israel. Considering that Iraq was a major Arab state, such a cowing of post-Saddam Iraq was to be envisioned as an unstated, but a capstone, achievement of the Bush administration.

Iran, the Iraqi Shi'ite clergy and the Shi'ite populace had entirely different agendas. The Iraqi Shi'ites were in favor of having a democratic setup, since such an arrangement promised to give them an unprecedented opportunity of becoming a dominant ruling group, as they are the dominant group, ahead of Sunni Muslims. However, their own perspectives of democracy were marked by a lack of clarity from the very beginning. They did not seem to know whether they preferred a secular democracy or a government based on Islam. Second, and more important, the reason for their bewilderment on the issue is that even the Shi'ite clerics are led by proponents of two schools of thought: the Islamists and the quietists.

The Islamist groups - now led by Muqtada - want an Iran-style Islamic government in Iraq. Whether it would be another vilayat-e-faqih (rule of the learned cleric) a la Iran, or a pale resemblance of it, is not quite clear. But this perspective is very much present, and is likely to become a visible player during the elections of 2005. The chief weakness of this school in today's Iraq is that it is led by a young cleric, Muqtada, who doesn't carry impeccable religious credentials (compared to Sistani), but makes up for it many times over in charisma. Considering that charismatic leaders in the Middle East - indeed in the Muslim politics at large - usually carry a larger sway than sedate moderates, no one should rule out a major voice for the Muqtada brand of religiously alluring leaders in the post-Saddam Iraq.

The quietist school - which advocates keeping politics and religion separate - is led by Sistani, an ardent promoter of Islam-based democracy in Iraq. In his vision, Iraq is to be governed by a Shi'ite-dominated democracy, where moderate Islam will play an important role. It was Sistani's insistence on holding elections in the near future, and his deeply rooted suspicion of the former CPA, that forced the Bush administration to abandon its obsession with unilateralism in Iraq, and allow the participation of the UN. The participation of the world body also initiated a highly desirable phase of multilateralism governing the US presence in Iraq. The continued insurgency and terrorism inside that country also played a vital role in forcing the US's hand in that direction.

Sistani's prestigious and powerful presence has ensured that elections will be held in Iraq within the next six months. At the same time, he serves as an equally potent source of the participation of Islamic candidates in the Iraqi elections.

Iran's role in the Shi'ite side of the power equation in Iraq is extremely calculating and multidimensional. Iran has strong theological ties with Iraq; it served as an important source of anti-regime protest even during the heyday of Saddam's rule; and continues to play a similar role regarding the presence of US forces in its neighboring state. Iran's influence on Iraq's underground economy has remained substantial. As such, it is expected to influence the future course of that country's politics. One can be assured that Iran will - to the chagrin of the US - handpick many candidates in the forthcoming Iraqi elections.

It should be pointed out, however, that the chief obstacle that Iran faces in Iraq is the uncertainty of Iraq's Shi'ites about the future course of their democratically elected government: whether it should be modeled after the Islamic Republic of Iran or a moderate Islamic democracy, with a limited role for the clergy? The chief reason for this uncertainty is that the Iraqi Shi'ites are not at all impressed with the ostensibly sustained inertia inside Iran as a result of the enduring struggle between the hardliners (led by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) and the pragmatists (led by President Mohammad Khatami). In all probability, the Iraqi Shi'ites don't want to implant that inertia in their own polity by adopting the Iranian model. Sistani will play a crucial role in resolving the dilemma of the Iraqi Shi'ites, by promoting a sui generis Iraqi democracy based on moderate Islam. Regardless of the outcome, Iran's influence on Iraqi politics is not likely to dissipate in its neighboring state. This reality continues to frustrate the Bush administration.

Muqtada envisions an Islamic Iraq, with no influence or presence of the US. Sistani would prefer a moderate Islamic democracy dominated by Shi'ites. He has no use for the US either, once Iraq becomes a Shi'ite-dominated Islamic democracy. Actually, these two visions may not be that much apart, if they are not to get entangled in the personality differences between these two individuals.

However, from Muqtada's side, it is well nigh impossible to minimize the element of personal aspirations. Muqtada is very much interested in seeing the creation of some sort of vilayat-e-faqih. In principle, such a concept emphasizes the exercise of power by a high-powered ayatollah, like Sistani. In reality, since Sistani belongs to the quietist school, he is not interested in such a role, as was adopted by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979. Muqtada, on the contrary, despite his lesser religious credentials, definitely aspires to such a role. In the past three months or so his popularity among poor Shi'ites and even among hardline anti-American Sunni Iraqis has gone way up. Whether or not he can translate that popularity into votes will be determined during the next elections.

If Iraq were to become an Islam-based democracy, Washington would envision it as a setback for its own larger vision of democracy in the Middle East. If Bush were to be reelected, the tug-and-pull between the US and Iran over the future political course of Iraq would only intensify. Iran will play its hand to the hilt; that includes exploiting its theological connections, and utilizing its economic power in order to make its presence felt in Iraq.

At least for now, Iran does not seem to be overly apprehensive about America's larger designs to democratize the Middle East, especially if there is a second Bush administration. Bush has created so much ill will through his invasion of Iraq and through his perceptibly overly one-sided policies on the PLO-Israeli conflict that his credibility in the Middle East - indeed, in the entire world of Islam - will not be reestablished any time soon. So Iran does not feel compelled about responding to America's mega-designs toward the Middle East. It knows if it can maintain its sway in the future course of power politics inside Iraq that would be a major achievement for now. Iran appears convinced of the powerful linkages between the creation of Islam-based democracy in Iraq and the failure of the US in its larger designs to implant secular democracy in the Muslim Middle East. Fortunately for Iran, a number of Middle Eastern states have a jaundiced perception of Washington's democracy-related activities and vision for their region.

Ehsan Ahrari, PhD, is an Alexandria, Virginia, US-based independent strategic analyst.