Why Iran ‘meddles’ in Iraq

ADAM SHATZ is literary editor of the Nation.

THIS TIME AROUND, when the Bush administration presented “intelligence” from unidentified sources about a dangerous foe in the Middle East, the American media was noticeably more skeptical. Eager to redeem themselves for the generally obsequious reporting about Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction and ties to Al Qaeda, journalists don’t want to get fooled again as the administration lays the groundwork for a possible war against Iran.

But even though journalists have quite rightly raised questions about the credibility of the intelligence and the motives behind its release, they have failed to take the next step and examine the fundamental underlying premise behind the administration’s accusations: that Iran’s role in Iraq is inappropriate.

Take, for instance, the New York Times’ Feb. 13 editorial, “Iran and the Nameless Briefers.” While demanding that President Bush “make his intentions toward Iran clear,” warning against “another disastrous war” and questioning the administration’s assertion (since retracted) that “the highest levels of the Iranian government” authorized the sale of armor-piercing explosives to militants in Iraq, the paper added, as if it were self-evident: “We have no doubt of Iran’s malign intentions. Iran is defying the Security Council’s order to halt its nuclear activities, and it is certainly meddling inside Iraq.”

Let’s be clear: Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, with his disgraceful Holocaust denial conference and incendiary strutting, cuts an unsavory profile, to say the least. And since the collapse of the Iranian reform movement, hard-liners have shrewdly exploited Bush’s threats, jailing intellectuals with contacts in the West.

Still, is it fair to characterize Iran’s involvement in Iraq as “malign,” or, for that matter, as “meddling” (in contrast, say, to the presence of 130,000 American troops in Iraq)? Might Iran have legitimate interests in what is, after all, its own geographic neighborhood?

Could it be that Iran’s stake in Iraq is solidly grounded in the same realist principles that drive the behavior of most nations, rather than in “malign intentions” or a desire to export the Islamic revolution?

If Iran wants to see a friendly government established in Iraq, it hardly lacks for reasons. Unlike the United States, Iran was attacked by Iraq, back when Hussein’s regime enjoyed American support as a bulwark against Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s revolution. Hundreds of thousands of Iranians died during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88). When Iraq used poison gas against Iranian troops, the United States uttered not a single protest.

Not surprisingly, Iran wants to ensure that no government in Iraq will threaten it again. That’s why Iran made no secret of its joy over Hussein’s downfall, but it also refuses to accept a potentially hostile American base in the Persian Gulf or to cede absolute control over Iraq’s future to the United States.

Iran also sees itself as a protector of Shiite interests in the region — and is, with a mixture of gratitude and wariness, viewed as such by Shiites from the gulf to Lebanon to Pakistan. Iraq’s Shiite majority, though Arab and nationalist, is linked to Iran’s Shiites through both family and religious ties. It was in Tehran that many of the Iraqi Shiite parties in power today found sanctuary from Hussein’s agents; many Iraqi clerics studied in Iran, and some — most notably Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani — were born in Iran. Every Iraqi Shiite politician must pay his respects to Tehran, including secularists such as Washington’s former darling, Ahmad Chalabi.

The future Iraqi government, frankly, is likely to bear a stronger resemblance to the Islamic republic than to the liberal democracy the Bush administration publicly championed — or to the “Saddamism without Saddam” scenario that many advocates of the invasion privately preferred. That Iran has acted to bolster the power of its Shiite allies in Iraq — and to arm Shiite militias avenging Sunni attacks on their people and their shrines — may not be to Washington’s liking, but “meddling” doesn’t seem the right word for it.

In thinking about Iran’s behavior, it’s important to remember that the United States has made plain its determination to curb Iranian influence in the region — by force of arms, if necessary. From Iran’s perspective, the U.S. is an implacable enemy that has rebuffed its diplomatic overtures. No state likes to see a hostile army stationed in its backyard.

If Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has indulged Ahmadinejad’s rhetorical extremism, it may be because he expected to be rewarded, rather than punished, for Iran’s assistance to the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq.

As Gareth Porter recently reported in the American Prospect, Iran floated a proposal in May 2003, shortly after the fall of Baghdad, for a “grand bargain” with the United States. It offered to back the 2002 Arab Summit’s proposal for a two-state solution in Israel-Palestine and to end its military support for armed Palestinian groups as well as Hezbollah in return for the restoration of diplomatic relations with the United States.

Prematurely intoxicated by its “mission accomplished,” the Bush administration reportedly ignored Iran’s proposal and has since given every indication that it prefers regime change in Tehran to the kind of dialogue recommended by the Iraq Study Group. To this end, the administration has flirted with the Iranian Mujahedin Khalq, also known as MEK, a bizarre Maoist guerrilla group/cult that opposes the Islamic government and frequently launched attacks on Iran from Iraq with Hussein’s backing.

Given the Bush administration’s belligerent position, the Iranian government might have concluded that, with Hussein dead and the Shiite parties in power, Tehran’s interests are best served by the withdrawal of American troops on its border. Even if the Iraqis fail to drive out U.S. forces, a deepening quagmire usefully distracts attention from Tehran’s nuclear program and reminds the United States that it needs Iran in order to exit with its honor intact.

Like any state, the Islamic republic seeks above all to preserve itself. But, again, is this “malign intent” or a sober calculation?

Iran has, in other words, a strong realist case for being involved in Iraq. If Iranian “designs” on Iraq are seen as malign, it is only by those who believe that U.S. “intentions” in Iraq (unlike other imperial powers, we have no designs) are benign.

In this fairy-tale version of history, American rationales for occupying Iraq may change as often as necessary (from the destruction of Hussein’s nonexistent “stockpile of weapons of mass destruction” to the promotion of democracy to the prevention of a civil war detonated by our invasion), but they remain virtuous in intent, while those who resist our plans are always portrayed as sinister.

The liberal mainstream has come to view the Iraq war as the greatest foreign policy disaster since Vietnam, but its faith in American virtue — its belief in American exceptionalism — remains as unshaken as the Bush administration’s.

In the narrow parameters of American politics, you can ask whether Bush is telling the truth about Iraniandesigned bombs, but you may not ask whether the United States would accept the presence of 130,000 Iranian troops on our border. Nor may you ask who exactly is “meddling” in Mesopotamia.